BOOK REVIEW: All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

This review contains spoilers.

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.

I wasn’t expecting to like this book. Various people had told me that the characters were nothing but walking depictions of their mental illnesses, that the story was underdeveloped and that it didn’t pack any emotional punch. I didn’t find any of those things to be true.

Many people have compared it to The Fault in Our Stars and I have to say that, of the two novels, All the Bright Places was a more emotional read for me. While I can see how the characters could be construed as personifications of their mental illnesses at first, the more time I spent with them the more I grew to love them as individuals. Their journeys and personalities touched me in a way that The Fault in Our Stars never did—and considering it’s held up as the pinnacle of cry-worthy YA literature, I think that’s a definite accomplishment. I think this was partly because of the dialogue; while the characters in All the Bright Places are incredibly intelligent, they act and speak their age and the dialogue always comes across as natural to me.

The story as a whole is a strong one, though it suffered when basic narrative ploys were used to make events plausible. It’s common to have absent parents to allow a character more freedom and Finch’s familial situation was pushed to the limit in this aspect. His friends are also mostly absent, only being inserted into the narrative when they served a backdrop purpose and not for any individual development. It seemed that, with almost every twist and turn, Finch’s life became more miserable until he had no hope of pulling himself out of his suicidal mentality.

It’s hard to critique this aspect of the book because, as is revealed in the author’s note at the end of the novel, at least part of this story was based on the author’s true experiences. It makes it difficult to figure out exactly what is real (or inspired by real events) and what is elaboration for the sake of the story. If Jennifer Niven’s real-life inspiration lived the same life as Finch, I can understand the choice to portray his family this way. If not, it felt like an easy way to allow Finch to do whatever he pleased without being questioned about it.

When it comes to the core of the story, I was expecting something very different. The way people talked about this book, I thought it was all about overcoming suicidal notions and learning to find hope in all the bright places. I worry that, with the way Finch’s plotline played out, some people will read this for hope or help and end up feeling like their death is inevitable. Because, in reality, this is a story about survivors of suicide—the people who are left behind and how they put themselves back together.

Part P.S. I Love You and part Elizabethtown, the end is emotionally staggering and utterly beautiful. I was on the verge of tears for most of the last section due to the lyrical prose and the situation itself. The prose, like the dialogue, is both carefully considered and deceptively casual, which is how it manages to sneak up on you and punch you in the face with emotion just when you think you’ve finished drying your eyes.

 

The verdict

I can definitely understand all the hype surrounding All the Bright Places and I think it’s well-deserved. Jennifer Niven has created a pair of memorable and brilliant main characters whose story will stay with me for a long time.

I rate it ★★★★


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