All the Bright Places
Author: Jennifer Niven
Publisher: Penguin Random House
For People Who Liked: Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Fault in Our Stars, Me Before You, PS: I Love You, Harold and Maude
Rating: 4 / 5 Stars
This is not a spoiler-free review! (You can find a spoiler free version on Goodreads.)
I tentatively put this on my To Be Read list around the time it first came out and went back and forth about reading it for a while. It looked like another Fault in Our Stars, (in fact, it’s marketed as such), which had me worried. But while I was doing my dissertation on YA marketing, I was attending a whole slew of literary conferences on the topic and Jennifer Niven spoke about All the Bright Places on a mental illness panel.
And I will say this: she seems like an extremely lovely lady. Someone well-intentioned and a person who would be a really supportive, patient, understanding teen or mentor to teens. Everything she said about her reasoning for writing the novel boiled down to “you are loved, you are not alone,” which is why her portrayal of protagonists Violet and Finch felt so genuine to me. Her tackling the subject felt incredibly sincere, like someone who’s been through the motions one too many times herself and she just wanted to share her experience with an audience who needed to hear it. And she does, in fact, say in her author’s note that she lost loved ones to suicide and she struggled to understand why they would do it and how something like that could happen. She also includes a comprehensive international suicide hotline listing, which I think speaks a lot to just how sincere she is in her intentions in writing this book.
Around the time this novel was published, a close childhood friend of my family’s was lost to suicide and the emotional turmoil and shock of it took me completely by surprise. And Niven articulately addresses just what that experience is like, not only from the point of view of the loved ones and bystanders, but of the victim themselves. There’s a certain amount of Finch’s character development that feels very needlessly eccentric. At times, he just reads like a quirky YA male love interest, when in fact, he’s this very broken teen who doesn’t know who he is, who he’s supposed to be, and who he wants to be. And all the other noise surrounding his character is his way of blocking out that pain of existential crisis that eats away at him. His fixations on death were played out similar to Harold and Maude, like oh, this is kind of a cute game, and yeah, that’s just what he does, but it escalates in a very subtle way that doesn’t make you think where his mental state is, but at the same time, doesn’t romanticise it. I found this particular nuance of his character incredibly true to form because yeah, people with suicidal tendencies do fixate on drowning or stepping off a ledge. And I’m probably going to be forever haunted, knowing that someone I once knew contemplated painstakingly detailed ways to drown themselves before their eventual death. That wasn’t ultimately how they died, but the fact that Niven’s protagonist does in that way still resonates with me all the same.
On the surface though, this story isn’t just about suicide. On a broader scale, it’s about mental illness in general. And I like that Niven isn’t afraid to take on the glib way people treat mental illness. For so many people in Finch’s life to know full well that he’s threatened or attempted to kill himself and simply brush it off as a joke, or not their problem really elevates just how horrific this issue is. His own therapist tells him not to jump off the roof on school property not out of concern for his wellbeing, but to prevent a lawsuit against the school. His divorced parents on the one hand abuse him, and on the other, neglect him, further aggravating the situation. He clearly does not have a support system in place, and when Violet shows up in his life, it’s clear he doesn’t know what to do with one when it’s handed to him. Ironically enough, he makes it his mission to become her support system when she’s grieving the loss of her sister. Yet he doesn’t realise that he deserves the same care from her. In a nice juxtaposition and foil for Finch and his toxic family life, we find out that Violet actually does have a solid support system already in place for herself. Her parents are loving and attentive and when she’s going through her grief, her mother is there to actively encourage her to get back into writing again in a new way that reflects this new stage in her life without her sister. The most telling is just how angry her parents are when they find out Finch’s own parents refuse to completely acknowledge and accept the possibility of their son’s death when faced with the opportunity to find him. This prominent feature of healthy parent-teenager relationships is something very rarely found in YA and I’m so relieved to see it in action here.
Another thing I loved about this story was Violet’s character development. She’s a smart, ambitious writer, and of course, I get her. Because she’s me. After her sister’s death, she goes through a very long dry spell where she can’t bring herself to write anymore. But as the plot goes on, she finds a new way to approach writing in an even more meaningful way. And that’s really representative of many healthy ways she copes with her depression. She starts brainstorming topics of interest, and how she wants to make her mark on the world in a way that matters to other people. She drops all her vapid mean girl friends and starts hanging out with a really cool new friend group that actually gets her. She comes to her parents and opens up about her feelings. She moves forward with her life. And that’s as real a portrayal of how to cope with mental illness as Finch’s maladaptations are. Getting both sides of the coin like that was really refreshing. And the fact that Violet and Finch were romantically involved didn’t make either of their mental issues magically go away. Just because Finch was happy didn’t make him any less unstable. Because things like that don’t just go away when you’re loved. It’s about accepting that you have someone there to help you live with it that matters most. And some people can’t accept themselves and can’t accept help when it’s handed to them. And it’s sad, but that’s how it goes sometimes.
So for all of this complex, raw exploration of mental illness, I loved this novel. It’s honest and unafraid to approach topics that are otherwise neglected as a taboo in public institutions. This novel is exactly what I wanted Perks of Being a Wallflower to be. It was eloquently written with real teens doing real teen things. Their adventures were realistic and plausible. It wasn’t Violet and Finch making out in the middle of the Anne Frank museum to a round of applause a la Faults in Our Stars. It wasn’t that. These kids did real, obtainable, possible things. It felt very real to me and I related. And I think a lot of actual teens with and do too.
It’s books like these that remind me just how on the ball YA has become (and is still in the process of becoming) in terms of addressing real, relatable teen issues. And I think we need much more of this.