“Theodore Finch and Violet Markey meet properly for the first time in quite remarkable circumstances. They have been going to the same school for some time, and even though they have lessons together, sitting in the same class for U.S Geography, they have never really got to know each other. Suddenly they have a deep, dark secret in common, and Finch, ever the ‘freak’, sees a way to use it to his advantage. What begins as a flirtation on his part becomes something deeper and more substantial. Slowly their relationship develops and both characters who were feeling incredibly lost, can begin to find their own kind of happiness. In its simplest terms this book is a love story, however, it is so much more: a coming of age novel, an attempt to reach young people who experience mental health issues and an all American road trip tale. I simply find it a beautifully written novel, with characters so real and heart breaking that they played on my mind long after I had finished reading. Although Jennifer Niven has written in great depth about teenage suicide, this book does not preach and leaves the reader feeling uplifted and full of hope” (Dean, 2015).
This book is one that has been on my personal to-read list for over a year, and I’m so glad I finally took the time to read it. All the Bright Places is funny, thoughtful, tragic, and all-around uplifting, and I found myself unable to put it down. It focuses on the story of Violet Markey, a girl who has just suffered the unexpected loss of her older sister Eleanor. Grief-stricken and unable to cope, Violet finds herself on top of the school’s bell tower one morning, where she meets a rather unusual character: Theodore Finch, known simply as “Finch,” the school “freak” and a general mystery. As it turns out, Theodore is up on that bell tower for the very same reason, though he ends up talking them both down from the ledge and saving Violet’s life. The two realize that they have U.S Geography together, and that they must begin a new year-long project to “wander the sights” of their home state, Indiana. This begins a whirlwind adventure in which the two learn about love, friendship, and the little moments that make life (and living) worthwhile.
Where do I even begin with this book? For starters, it really reminded me of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, which I will be comparing it to throughout this review. Like The Fault in Our Stars, this book focuses on the love story between two teenage characters who share a common problem: in this case, mental illness. Finch, as the novel alludes, suffers from an undiagnosed case of bi-polar disorder, refusing to get it treated due to his hatred of labels and being looked at as “sick” or “broken.” Violet, on the other hand, is suffering from depression after the tragic death of her sister Eleanor in a car accident a year earlier. She begins the novel feeling extreme survivor’s guilt, leading her to abandon all of the activities (such as writing) that once made her feel joy. After only a few chapters, it’s very clear that this book is going to be about much more than a school project: it is an anthem for anyone who has ever suffered from mental illness. While I will admit that the teenagers in this book do not talk or sound much like real teenagers (which, to me, is very similar to the characters in The Fault in Our Stars), they deal with struggles and conflicts that many teens can easily relate to.
Near the beginning of the book, Finch brings up an extremely valid point, one that the author herself points out again in the author’s note:
“The fact is, I was sick, but not in an easily explained flu kind of way. It’s my experience that people are a lot more sympathetic if they can see you hurting, and for the millionth time in my life I wish for measles or smallpox or some other recognizable disease just to make it simple for me and also for them” (Niven, 2015, p. 16).
At the end of the book, Jennifer Niven explains her own history with suicide, stating that, “People rarely bring flowers to a suicide” (2015, p. 382). Both the novel and her insights shed light on a very important fact of society: we often tend to look down on those who commit suicide as being “selfish” and “deserving it.” Much like people who suffer from addiction, mental illness is a rather large taboo, and likely makes people nervous because they (as Finch puts it) cannot see the illness. As a society, we put a lot more weight on illnesses like cancer and heart disease, but seem to think very little of illnesses like depression and anxiety. As someone who suffers from both, I can’t even count the number of times I’ve been told to “Just be happy” or to “Get over it,” which to me sounds a lot like telling someone to, “Just get rid of the cancer” or “Heal that broken leg.”
There is, overall, a lot less sympathy for those who suffer from mental illness than there is for those who suffer from physical illnesses, and I’ve personally never understood why that is. The brain is an extremely complex organ, and one that very few of us even minimally understand, so it’s crazy to think there are those out there who believe it can’t attack us like any other organ. Finch, seen by his peers (and even his own family) as being a “freak,” seems to illustrate this societal issue perfectly. His own family tends to ignore his issues, playing them off as being “Just how he always is.” He is relentlessly bullied in school, and blamed for retaliating against this bullying. Even his counselor struggles to understand him, treating him more like he’s crazy than someone who simply needs help. The trouble is, Finch himself does not want help, and refuses to admit that he might need medication or therapy. He, like many people who suffer from mental illness, just wants to be “normal,” and to not walk through the halls and get funny looks from teachers and classmates.
While I do not want to spoil the ending, this book deals with very important themes, themes like coping with the loss of someone through suicide and dealing with depression. There are, I feel, teens who can relate both to Finch and to Violet, and the novel lets us see into both of their heads as we follow their journey together. The novel quite beautifully shows two somewhat broken people who are able to find healing and happiness with one another, if only for a brief moment, and I think it’s so important to have a book for young people that does this. I would gladly use this in either a classroom or a teen book group to help teens who might be struggling with suicidal thoughts, or who know someone that committed suicide.
While I cannot comment to the accuracy of Finch’s emotions or actions, I feel as if this book could show someone struggling with bi-polar disorder that they’re not alone, and that there is a way for them to seek help if they choose to. It could also be helpful in starting up a dialogue about survivors of suicide, both for those who have attempted it and those who have lost loved ones. Violet, throughout the novel, struggles with the guilt of her sister’s death, feeling as if it was her fault. This is a common reaction to death, especially sudden and unexpected death, and it might help teens to begin the healing process and forgive themselves for events they could not control. It also shows Violet’s healing process in its entirety, taking her from someone who is afraid to drive even a few miles out of town to someone willing to traverse the state on her own by the end of the novel. She is also able to “wake up”from her grief and depression, and soon begins to find joy in the activities she loved doing beforehand. This is so important for teens to see, as it shows that there is life after tragedy, no matter the circumstances behind it. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I can easily see it becoming a classic that teens (and adults) can enjoy for generations to come.
Dean, E. (2015, Spring). Niven, Jennifer: All the Bright Places. School Librarian, 63(1), 56.
Niven, J. (2015). All the Bright Places. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.