On “All the Bright Places” by Jennifer Niven

Courtesy of goodreads.com

This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

This review contains spoilers from the book

Strap on your seatbelts, kids. This book is going to be a rough fucking ride. Imagine The Fault in Our Stars, and replace cancer with mental illness. Yes. It’s the definition of an emotional roller coaster. (Ironically enough, this book features Violet and Finch riding two homemade roller coasters. Do with that what you will.)

Jennifer Niven builds her novel on the typical boy-meets-girl-in-some-strange-circumstance-and-then-bond-even though-they-have-nothing-in-common trope we see in most all young adult novels these days. But it quickly diverges into something else. Each chapter alternates between Violet’s and Finch’s perspectives. Violet is dealing with grief and guilt after surviving a car crash that killed her older sister and is counting down the days until graduation. Finch has just woken up from a “sleep” that has kept him homebound for nearly a month; he’s finally awake, and he’ll do anything he can to stay that way.

All the Bright Places begins with both Violet and Finch standing at the top of their school’s bell tower, trying to feel more alive. From that moment on, they have an unbreakable connection. Finch pushes Violet to experience everything all at once, taking her on adventure after adventure. Violet has to learn to push boundaries again even though the simple act of getting into a car makes her freak out.

Soon enough, though, it becomes apparent that Finch’s idiosyncratic behavior is more than just a facet of his buoyant personality, but he refuses to label himself with an illness, and his parents are willfully ignorant of his problems or, in his father’s case, abusive. Finch does everything he can to mend himself by struggling to stay awake and caring for Violet. But it isn’t enough.

**Spoiler alert** Finch kills himself. The instant when Violet realizes he’s dead is one of the most devastating moments in YA fiction that I can remember. I knew his illness was getting the best of him at that point in the novel, but I honestly believed he would seek medical attention for the sake of his personal goals, his family, and of course, Violet. But, once again, he refused to acknowledge he could be “bi-polar,” believing it would be the end of him.

Niven expertly characterizes Finch within the confines of his illness. His chapters throughout the novel are consistently well-crafted, and they subtly highlight the drive of Finch’s mania and the frightening depth of his depression should he fall into it again. There are moments in the beginning, however, where the reader might find his exuberance both tiring and trite, but his musings become more palatable as the pages wear on.

Unfortunately, Finch’s chapters are so well-done that Violet’s chapters can sometimes pale in comparison. In retrospect, I realize that this might have been a tool Niven used purposefully to contrast Finch’s excess with Violet’s contained state of grief. Even if that was her intention, I found myself more invested in Finch’s story because Niven draws attention to this illness of his that no one can see. Finch even posits the idea that people don’t get flowers when they’re suffering from something that others can’t see. And if people can’t see it, it must not exist, right?

Although I wanted Finch to come to the realization that he needed medical attention, I knew that realization would be a fairy tale ending to a story that was doomed from the beginning.

All the Bright Places is an important story for anyone affected by mental illness or suicide, and it’s an important reminder for everyone involved that it’s not always your fault if someone decides to end his or her life. Sometimes even caring for someone with suicidal tendencies isn’t enough to save them, which is a lesson Violet is forced to learn when Finch is gone.

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