Title: All the Bright Places
Author: Jennifer Niven
No. of Pages: 400
Genre: Young Adult Fiction
Origins: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Release Date: 6 January 2015
Bottom Line: Entirely worth the tears shed while reading
“Theodore Finch is fascinated by death, and he constantly thinks of ways he might kill himself. But each time, something good, no matter how small, stops him.
Violet Markey lives for the future, counting the days until graduation, when she can escape her Indiana town and her aching grief in the wake of her sister’s recent death.
When Finch and Violet meet on the ledge of the bell tower at school, it’s unclear who saves whom. And when they pair up on a project to discover the “natural wonders” of their state, both Finch and Violet make more important discoveries: It’s only with Violet that Finch can be himself—a weird, funny, live-out-loud guy who’s not such a freak after all. And it’s only with Finch that Violet can forget to count away the days and start living them. But as Violet’s world grows, Finch’s begins to shrink.”
Thoughts: There are times when one reads a novel in which one can see the ending early into the novel. Most of the time, this is not something readers want to happen; they would prefer twists and surprise endings that shock and amaze. However, in some rare instances, the characters are so well-defined that readers will not worry about the known ending but will spend the rest of the novel wishing that one could become part of the story and save the characters from their fates. All the Bright Places falls firmly into the latter category, and in this case, it is a very good thing.
Readers do not need to infer much to understand that both Violet and Finch are suffering, nor does it take much deduction to accurately guess what ails them. Their symptoms are obvious, and therein lies a large portion of the tragedy. If their symptoms are so clear to readers, why are they not to their family and friends. More importantly, if they are, why has no one acted? In many ways, it is the very same adults who espouse recovery through counseling and who profess to have the students’ best interests at heart that prove to be the biggest failures. Adult readers will find this problematic because it only serves to confirm the gap between teenagers and adults, something that does not appear to be Ms. Niven’s intention. However, the lack of action by the adults when they are all too aware that there are problems is just as clearly defined as Violet’s and Finch’s illnesses, and the implication there is upsetting.
Violet and Finch each provide much food for thought in their actions and their thoughts. One of the topics Finch repeatedly mentions is the stigma of labels, especially as they apply to mental illnesses. Finch’s argument is that he will not seek help because he does not want anyone to have any more fodder to continue to ridicule him. Even Ms. Niven mentions the negative connotations associated with being diagnosed with a mental illness in her author’s notes. However, there are elements of this argument that readers will find difficult to accept. Seeing Finch suffer throughout the school day because no one understands his odd behavior does not confirm Finch’s arguments but raises the question as to whether his fellow students would be less judgmental if there was a legitimate reason for his quirks and outbursts. As with the lack of adult action, one cannot help but feel concern that Ms. Niven is sending the wrong message. Are labels really the issue? In this day and age, when just about everyone has some sort of diagnosis and is taking some sort of medication, is there a stigma towards mental illness and all that diagnosis implies?
At the end of the day, these types of questions and concerns only come to the fore long after one finishes the novel. While in the midst of it, a reader will only worry about Violet and Finch, whether they will get better, and whether Finch will be able to stay awake. More importantly, these two very troubled teens are more than words on a page but become very real to readers. Their pain and suffering becomes the reader’s pain and suffering, just as their hard-won happiness magnifies a reader’s happiness. These are two characters that blur the line between fiction and reality and for whom readers will care very much.
In spite of its happy title, All the Bright Places is not necessarily a happy novel. There is a lot of pain and suffering Violet and Finch experience, and a reader can only read impotently as they barrel towards their destinies. Those readers who are quick to shed tears should have a box of tissues ready to hand, and even those readers who are usually tougher to crack might also want to have one or two tissues in the vicinity of their seat. Not only does All the Bright Places tear one’s heart strings, but it also raises awareness of mental illness and the importance of taking action if a loved one refuses to seek help. It is a very powerful message in an impressive package.