Before I get into this review, I would like everyone to be aware of the heavy themes of suicide and mental illness that are included in this book. It would be unfair of me to skim over these as they are important factors in this story. All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven is the tale of Theodore Finch and Violet Markey, two teenagers struggling to survive for different reasons. As the snippet on the front cover reads: 'the story of a girl who learns to live from a boy who wants to die'. An emotional yet inspirational text about embracing life and the people around you, Niven's story focuses on how two completely different people can support and love one another during similar emotional struggles.
It's a young adult novel, which makes tackling themes such as mental illness and suicide all the more complex. However, through beautifully written and relatable thoughts and feelings, Niven is able to create this sensitive text that highlights struggles that are still too hard for some people to talk about. Through the use of two very different characters, there is an emphasis on how this can happen to anyone. It's a story that has the possibility to change people's perspectives without it being a hard and complex read. It all starts at Violet and Finch's high school, where they both meet unexpectedly at the top of their school's bell tower... and they're not there to look at view.
Violet is popular. She's dating Ryan Cross, the hunk of the school. She goes to 'happening' parties, is in the 'popular' crowd and is on her way to NYU to study her craft--writing. At least that was the plan until her sister, Eleanor, dies in a car crash after driving her home from a party. Finch is a troubled young man with undiagnosed bipolar disorder. He only has two friends. His parents have split after his father cheated on his mother, not to mention the abuse Finch suffers from his hands. His highs are high and his lows are extremely low, and his world revolves around a fascination around death and the planning of his. Two very different characters standing on different edges of the bell tower.
Finch has his reasons for being up there. It's not the first time either, but he's fascinated over the prospect of jumping to his death. Violet isn't sure why she's up there. She doesn't even remember walking up there. All she knows is that she's not happy with anything in her life at the moment, particularly herself. In an unexpected twist, Finch finds himself trying to talk Violet out from jumping using his dark charm to coax her back. Then, he plays it out as if she's persuading him not to jump. It's a selfless act for Finch to ensure Violet's reputation is not hurt, and she doesn't expect it. Nonetheless, she's embarrassed and scared. She wants to lay low and avoid attention, and being on the bell tower has done the complete opposite.
This meeting of the two characters begins the fixation that Finch has for Violet. He announces to a class that he and her will be partners for an assignment, one which Violet can't use the 'I'm not ready' excuse to get out of. It's embarrassing for her, to be with the 'freak' of the school. However, she does not realise the healing she will get from this unconventional character.
And so begins the journey of Finch and Violet (or should I say wanderings?). They find themselves connecting with each other in ways they never thought could happen. Finch battles to 'stay awake', so he finds respite in the joy that Violet provides him. He dons new outfits, 'new Finch's', to find the best fit for not only himself but her. It's almost obsessive but he knows that the way he supports her is helping her learn to live again without Eleanor. With Violet, he's always on a high.
There is a negativity in this though. His obsession over her life means that any issues, arguments or anything that gets in the way of them results in a rage that swells in him. As mentioned earlier, his lows are extremely low. As the story progresses, he starts to feel the pressure building up in him. He can feel the 'sleep' drawing in. His thoughts are fast and ever-changing that the reader can't keep up with it. His emotions are unpredictable and his actions more so.
As he revives her joy for life, expanding the world around her, his slowly shrink.
Then, when she tries to help revive his, he disappears.
She's the only one concerned about his disappearance. Everyone else has a flippant attitude because it's just how he is and what he does. Time passes. Although his disappearance hurts Violet, she takes the life that has been revived in her to start a new online magazine and complete the assignment her and Finch were doing. When she discovers Finch, it shakes her world. Although she could fall back into her grief-induced shell, she knows that's not what he wanted. Instead, Violet continues to live... no matter how hard it seems.
A story about embracing life as you live it, it takes a hard look at mental illness and the continuous battle fought by many against themselves. All the Bright Places shines a light (no pun intended) on suicide and provides a perspective of those who suffer daily.
What I thought
Where were the tissues I needed?! This story had me gripping at my chest in an attempt to hold back the flood of tears. As I wrote earlier, this story is a young adult story but the language used is so perfect to encapsulate the growing issue of mental illness within adolescents. Although the descriptions are beautiful and poetic, it's still so relatable to read. I know I am quite an emotional person when it comes to reading books, watching films and playing video games, but I sincerely think that this story has the potential to hit the emotional chord in anyone who reads it.
Suicide and mental illness are difficult to talk about, particularly if you suffer from suicidal thoughts or any mental illness. It can also be difficult to listen to someone talking about them, and then trying to support them in the best way you can. All the Bright Places really highlights this difficulty. Providing the two perspectives of Violet and Finch really educated me on the possible thoughts and emotions that people experience. I'm not saying that this book is the code of 'this is how things are' regarding those themes because each person is very different. However, I do think it provides a good perspective.
To be honest, when I first picked up the book and started to read it, I didn't expect much. The romantic notion of learning how to live from someone wanting to die irked me. However, I became very passionate about this story as I got into it. I predicted how it was going to end but it still shook me when it all happened. I fell in love with the characters and the way they were together. However, there were times I also felt a bit uneasy about some of the things that Finch did, but I think that also emphasised the whole point of the story.
I would recommend this story to pretty much anyone, except maybe younger readers who might not fully understand the issues raised in this book. I can understand if people are put off by the clichéd young adult side of it, but I'd still recommend giving it a go. Why? Because I think stories like this are super important for people to read. Becoming aware of the themes in the story can translate to every day life in a positive way, so I think it's worth pushing past the occasional gooey teenage feelings.
If you have read it, let me know what you think. Rumour has it it's being made into a movie, so I'm curious to see what that's like!
Charlotte is a reading and writing lover who has completed a creative writing intensive course at the University of Oxford and is a current university student studying a double degree in journalism and creative writing. If you are curious to learn more, check out the 'About' page.