All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

all the bright places

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.

All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven has its heart in the right place, as evidenced by Niven’s incredibly heartfelt Author’s Note. Therein, she details her inspiration behind the novel, and articulates her passion for raising awareness of mental health and all its facets. Although I have some criticisms of the book, which I will duly outline, to summarize why I don’t love this book: I did not feel emotionally connected to the story and its charactersAnd for a book that is teeming with emotional monologues and appeals to my sensitivity, it missed its mark. I shed no tears for this book. Whilst I could very well dismiss this as a personal experience, I am inclined to think that there were a few reasons as to why I feel less than ecstatic (or absolutely shattered) by All The Bright Places.

The first reason: as many have pointed out before me, the characters are, first and foremost quirky, and every other characteristic is secondary. Whilst this contributes to the book’s humour and its lighthearted approach and makes the characters more likable, I felt like the forced portrayal was contrived. Who are the characters beyond their quirkiness and emotional traumas? Who are they beyond their knowledge of literary quotes, their sarcasm, their wry humour? I wasn’t very sure who they were as individuals. The main characters, Finch and Violet, did not feel like people. They felt more like people young people wish to be, the whole ‘broken on the inside but impressive facade on the out’. They felt like caricatures, vessels for the promised emotional and heartbreaking ending that was inevitable with [a particular character’s] characterization.

Thus my second point: the ending was so predictable. Reading the summary, I had a strong hunch about what would happen in the ending – and I was right. Perhaps that is not a fault of the book and its writing per se, but as I read and learned how this particular character was treated development-wise, I was absolutely certain in its trajectory. More so, if this book is indeed inspired by John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, then the ending should come as no surprise to you as well. (Two particular characters are exactly the same!)

Nonetheless, criticism isn’t all I have to say about All The Bright Places. Although I didn’t enjoy it as much as others, I also want to highlight the things that I did appreciate. For one, I liked the simplicity of Finch’s states of ‘awake’ and ‘asleep’ – how eloquent it was to describe such strong, emotional phases with such simple, mundane words. But, what I really want to talk about is the criticism of the adults, the peers, and family of the novel’s protagonists: Why didn’t they do anything? Why didn’t they do more? However, I do not believe that these characters are due to failures of Niven’s writing.

On the contrary, I believe All The Bright Places is trying to draw attention to how we, competent or otherwise, address mental illness and its stigma, especially when it is our loved ones that are the sufferers. The nuances in how mental illness exists within the family were probably one of my favourite aspects of the book, even if its portrayal was a sad and tragic one. The fact of the matter is that it is hard to live with people with mental illnesses. And although it is the individual with mental illness that endures a great deal of pain, the family too shares that burden. It is a daily struggle for everyone, but, to struggle means to live.

As shown in the novel, support is harder to give on some days than others. There are days where family members will have strength to help, there will be days when it is overwhelming, there will be days where help feels like it has fallen on deaf ears therefore perpetuating a cycle of helplessness. In a perfect world, support would be given wholeheartedly, unconditionally, but to hold this book to that expectation would be to ignore its discourse.

It is true that the families in All The Bright Places could have done more, could have been more, but that evaluation and the subsequent questions are always after the fact. There were characters, especially adults, who fumbled when mental illness was to be discussed or confronted. Within the story, there were characters who were hypocrites, characters that were unhelpful, and some clueless. Rather than pinpointing fault and attributing blame, it is a narrative of how we, as a society, still struggle to make sense of mental illness. Our social vocabulary for mental illness is still developing, hence why people freeze at the mention of mental illness – more often than not, society has not taught them what to say, how to react. Yes, it was frustrating to witness, but I believe that these responses are (unfortunately) very real.

In some families, especially in Finch’s family, mental illness is implicitly understood but generally left unaddressed. I believe Niven is trying to convey with her supporting characters, including the ones that seemingly did nothing or did not do enough, the terrible effect of poor understanding of mental illness and the consequences of little to no help. Should we accept this as normal? Absolutely not. Should this be changed? Absolutely. And damn right readers should be uncomfortable with how Finch was treated by his loved ones. But above all, it should draw our attention to why mental illness can be an extremely complex issue, further complicated by a multitude of factors that are not visible on the surface. To ignore this, to continue to ask ‘why wasn’t more done?’ and to lay blame is ultimately futile and meaningless.

Tangent follows: This is a bit of a stretch, but I’ll talk about it anyway. I also got the impression that Finch’s family was not wealthy. A simple Google search tells me that access to mental health care services can be expensive with a lot of financial, legal, and institutional barriers. When most of us think ‘help’ with mental illness, we imagine psychologists and therapists working with the individual through their mental health. Another Google search tells me that (in the US) to pay for one hour of therapy, it would cost several hours to several days of pay. For families who live paycheck to paycheck, this is extremely difficult. Of course, there are cheaper options, such as going through the public healthcare systems which involve social workers and psychologists who are, at best, already stretched thin and, at worse, don’t give a damn. Also consider that medication and outpatient treatment may be necessary to see long-term improvement. It is easy to say that a person needs help, but for people who are not wealthy and thus experience higher levels of financial and environmental stress, help is not always affordable.

Returning to All The Bright Places — the last criticism I have is that a significant portion of the book and its elements are largely overshadowed by the romance. The romance is treated as part rite-of-passage and part one-time-only life lesson (which I wasn’t particularly fond of) that lacked substance. The relationship felt more like a build-up to the book’s climax, a way to hook the reader in emotionally – because nothing hits you harder in the feels than a story of two teenagers falling in love, their nigh perfect love doomed (see: The Fault in Our Stars and A Walk to Remember). It just felt a little cheap. Perhaps this works for some people, but it just didn’t for me. (“It’s not you, it’s me.” Sort of.)

Although I evidently have a lot to say about the book, All The Bright Places is not a bad book at all. Parts of the book could have been handled with more sensitivity, and for a book that is highly emotional and will affect a lot of people emotionally, it could have dialed down the emotional manipulation. But, as well as its faults, there were merits. All The Bright Places does explore some important themes – mental illness, trauma, family, love, grief and death – but the book lacked that rawness that makes a story feel genuine. Above all, the storytelling in All The Bright Places stumbles often, especially in its ending. Nonetheless, I appreciate this book for its accessibility and its subject matter. All The Bright Places is definitely not a perfect book and not a book I would recommend for readings pertaining to mental health, but a decent read nonetheless.

Rating: 2.5/5

Book Information
Book Name: All The Bright Places
Author: Jennifer Niven
Publisher: Knopf

All The Bright Places in:
Goodreads | Amazon | Book Depository 


36 thoughts on “All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

  1. Great review. I’ve been meaning to read this one forever, but something about it just doesn’t especially grab me. The story feels like one that’s been told before. From what you’ve said about it and TFIOS, it sounds like that’s probably because it has.

    I really like what you said about family, and how supporting somebody with mental illness is also a really difficult experience. Learning to understand what life is like from the point of view of our parents is something that comes with age, I think. As such I would be interested to hear whether the intended, younger audience of the book could be so empathetic toward the family and their real/perceived failings. It can be cathartic at times (and sometimes totally deserved), but generally reading completely vilified family members isn’t really my thing and it’s something I’m wary about engaging with. Even though it’s harder I think it’s much better for everyone if we try and imagine each other as complex people.

    • Thank you as always for the thoughtful comment, Lydia! ♥

      Tbh All The Bright Places didn’t particularly appeal to me either, but it wasn’t as bad as I had expected. (I wasn’t particularly fond of TFioS and Eleanor and Park is racist trash so.)

      Thank you! I think empathizing with our parents definitely comes with age – I’m the oldest child in the family, so I had to learn the fastest. To be honest, I was a little surprised? disappointed? that so many people didn’t like that Finch’s family didn’t help as much – but to me, it was such a raw portrayal? It was very unfortunate and certainly not ideal, but I think we lose integrity as a society if we are only willing to show ideal and positive portrayals.

      I don’t like reading about vilified family members either, and I hate it when authors portray family/parents that way to try and appeal to a younger audience.

      It is harder, but I agree – it is better! Everyone is a complex individual and is just like ourselves, in that sense. I think empathy can go a long way, sometimes.

      • I think in general YA writers struggle with parents. They are even of the disappearing variety (which I totally get cause, plot device), or they are basically villains. I sometimes wonder if it is an author or a publisher problem, though that is a little bit cynical.

        • I wonder that too. :I Completely agree on the parent thing, which is such a shame. I mean, not everyone is born a parent, and I wish authors would incorporate that struggle into their stories. I think a book that really hit home with me was Before I Die by Jenny Downham, where the father really tries his best to be a good day despite the hardships and everything.

  2. Once again another review I loved to read <3 I read this book a few months ago now, but everything you just said about the characters and the story really echo my feelings from when I read this book. Obviously, you wrote it down better than I could. I really loved that this book dealt with mental illness, but I felt disconnected to the characters, too.

    • Thanks Marie! I’m glad that I could verbalize your thoughts for you. n_n

      I wish Niven took it further with the mental illness aspect – it was an engaging book (can’t deny that!) and there was so much potential for discussion. But I felt like the ending lacked… precision? :(

      • I felt the same way! It still got me a little emotional, but I didn’t cry, and I felt like it could have been, I don’t know, better, maybe. It makes me a little sad to say that, because I think it was a great book, but it was missing a little something to take it from good, to amazing :)

  3. When I read this early this year, I gave it a 5 star rating purely based on feels. I completely agree that it’s lacking when it comes to the mental illness aspects. I read a whole heap of books about depression and suicide at around the same time and I can absolutely say that ATBP finishes last when it comes to addressing the issues properly. I can’t really remember what my criticisms are since I read it a while ago but I felt that the suicidal thoughts and basically everything important was being treated too lightheartedly. Like you mentioned, everything took a backseat to the romance and the emotions that came afterwards (which was probably what made it a great book for me and most readers). I guess if you’re looking for a book with the feels, this would be great but it’s not a mental health book that I would recommend. The Last Time We Say Goodbye and My Heart and Other Black Holes were far superior with their handling of teen suicide and depression.

    • Hehehhe I get you! I’ve rated based on feels too.
      I completely agree! I didn’t mind the light-hearted tone, but I think that there are times where such things need to be treated with sensitivity and seriousness. I don’t know; my review was a little personal because I have had friends that have gone through similar things to Finch and Violet, and it does not look like that at all. I know Niven endured the same things, but… I don’t know. The pain people feel can seem insurmountable at times, and I felt like the book didn’t capture that enough.

      I think it’s great that a book can make you feel so deeply though – I can’t even fault a book for doing that! It just didn’t for me and I didn’t get swept up in the feelings, which is 80% why I wasn’t fond of this book.

      Thank you for the recommendations! You know me – gave them to me before I asked! ♥

      • Yeah I know what you mean. I felt like she wanted to talk about it but kind of held back a bit so it all felt a little bit empty… and just not enough. I still felt the feels but it wasn’t the best for me. Hehe I think you’ll really like The Last Time We Say Goodbye. There’s little romance and lots of feels and it was also inspired by the author’s personal experiences.

  4. Interesting review. I have tried to read this book but I couldn’t get pass the first chapter at that time. I know that many people love this book so I’m still going to give it a try, but I’m not going to get my hopes too high, at least when it comes to representation of people with depression.
    Which books about mental illness do you recommend?

    • Thanks Windie! I think if you can get past the first few chapters, it becomes a pretty easy read thereafter. I can understand the beginning being quite difficult though – it was a little disjointed and didn’t flow too well! But it gets better – promise!

      I think it has its own way of portraying the mental illnesses, but it really lacked nuance and depth. Still, something to think about? c:

      Hmmm, definitely recommend Stephanie Kuehn books – Charm and Strange, Complicit and Delicate Monsters are all fantastic and have very vivid and raw portrayals of mental illness (no happy endings promised, though)!

      Unfortunately that may be the extent of my recommendations – I’m sure there are many good ones, but I’ve yet to read them!

  5. I LOVE THIS REVIEW SO SO MUCH (no sugar coating or whatever). It’s just so honest with the right reasons to base on.

    Like you, I didn’t bawl out bc 1.) I got the hint from the TFIOS- and Eleanor & Park-like teaser and 2.) the hype. TBH, this is an “okay” book for me. I-felt-the-emotion-but-not-strong-enough sort of thing.

    And thank you, CW, for pointing out how our society opts for apathy when talks about mental illnesses are brought up. I definitely agree with you! Also, I think people’s awareness (me included) on it is sparse and thus bullying becomes I thing. If you have good literary recommendations tackling mental illness, I’m adding that to my TBR :)

    • THANK YOU TRISHA! :’) ♥
      Yeah, me too! I felt like an ice queen, especially since so many people read it and cried. (I wondered what was wrong with me too because I cry over, well, everything??)

      Thank you Trisha! ^_^ Mental illness is a very difficult thing to talk about, and its ‘mainstream’ acceptance is still growing. But if we are open to learn, we can become better, right? :’D

      As for recommendations, I recommend Stephanie Kuehn’s books: Charm and Strange, Complicit, and Delicate Monsters. She’s a clinical psychologist in training, so she writes with a lot of nuance and detail – which is what I really like! I also quite enjoyed Silver Linings Playbook (much much better than the movie!) and The Bell Jar is regarded to be a classic, but I haven’t read it yet! (I definitely have to read it in 2016.)

      • Wow! Most of these books are strange to me but I trust your taste so I’m definitely considering these for 2016! I heard about Sikver Linings Playbook as a movie. I didn’t know it was adapted from a book. Thanks for these, CW :)

  6. I read this a few months ago and I wasn’t sure on how to explain how I felt about this book. You just described exactly how I felt about this book. I know a girl who recovered from mental illness, I think that’s how you put it, read this and did not like it at all, she said that this book didn’t really portray mental illness properly and she was really disappointed by that. She read a book called Every Last Word by Tamara Ireland Stone and thats about a girl with OCD. The author of that novel had a close relative aho had OCD so that’s how they got their knowledge on this disorder. The same girl I mentioned earlier, doesnt have OCD, said that Every Last Word was a really good novel and it was a very accurate representation of mental illness.

    • Hi Yasmin! I’m glad that I could describe the book for you! c:

      I share the same feelings as your friend. I’ve had friends who have gone through things that Finch and Violet went through, and I just don’t see the depth of pain that they felt in these books. To me, I felt like Niven could have gone deeper, but meh the romance really took over. And it’s just really hard being with someone with a mental illness! Not that it isn’t worth it or that they aren’t good partners, but it isn’t easy at all.

      Thank you for the recommendation! I’ll add it to my TBR and will definitely check it out – especially if your friend feels that it reflected her experience well.

      Thank you for such a thoughtful comment! ♥

  7. I can totally see why you feel this way about this book, but I really enjoyed it. I really liked Finch and all of his descriptions about well everything! I can see why you might feel like it’s lacking in the whole mental health department. I think if it did something like More Than This by Patrick Ness, it would of worked better.

    • Hi Astra!

      Thank you for understanding my points. :) That’s totally fine that you enjoyed it; I’m glad that you enjoyed it! I cannot fault you at all for liking something. I think it just wasn’t really for me.

      It definitely is lacking in the mental health department; it is a very emotional portrayal, which is a plus, but in terms of realism… not so much.

      I haven’t read More Than This, but I definitely want to. I’ve heard so many good and different things about it that I’m curious! Will definitely look out for a portrayal of mental illness when I pick it up next year. :D

  8. Everyone is leaving really smart comments but all I want to say is how amazingly written and well detailed this review is! I haven’t read the book, but I really enjoyed this reveiw. Do you mind if I stay on your blog a little longer? ;)

  9. First, I love the header you created for this one! It’s so, so pretty! They all are really, but I especially love this one.

    And I have been looking forward to reading your review on this one. This book has been a lot of readers’ favorite this year, but one of my favorite reviewers and friend, Thomas also wasn’t a big fan of this one. I so agree. I think these books have a good intention of trying to spread “diversity” and introducing topics to our community, but the execution and story itself often ends up disappointing us. Sigh. Anyway, great review, Chooi!

    • Hehe, thanks Summer! This one is probably one of my favourites – I was lucky that both characters had names of something I could draw!

      Yes! I read Thomas’s review after and I agree with him wholeheartedly. More so, I’m not a fan of John Green at all, and All The Bright Places reads a lot like John Green, especially TFioS.

      It definitely has great intent, but yeah, definitely lacking on the execution. I don’t know! A lot of my friends enjoyed it so there’s no reason why you wouldn’t. It just wasn’t for me, and maybe I am a bit too critical of it because it touches on something I’m very passionate about.

      Thank you Summer, as always! ♥

  10. Whoa, this is an awesome review CW, thank you for linking me to it. Your criticism is so well researched and articulated. I really admire you for writing about this topic with so much depth. Would you be able to summarise what ideally a book on this topic would look/sound like? I really liked your use of the word “rawness”. I don’t know if this is a bizarrely abstract question, but in a book, what does rawness sound like for you?

    • Hi Paige! Thank you so much. I wrote this so long ago and forgot most of what I wrote, haha!

      My ideal book on mental illness/suicide:
      That’s a really good question, and I have thought at length about the answer.
      – Personally, I think books that deal with mental illness should feel sincere. I did not feel that All The Bright Places was sincere in its portrayal of mental illness, despite Niven’s Authors Note (which, funny enough, was the part of the book that DID move me).
      – The romance of this book overshadowed the exploration of mental illness – the first part of the book emphasizes the mental illness, but the second part, if I recall correctly, felt like a very listless romance. The book felt disjointed because of its shift in focus.
      – I would like books that explore mental illness to be not emotionally manipulative. I felt that elements of ATBP were.
      – I did not get a true sense of who Violet and Finch were as individuals; their psyches didn’t feel… tangible? deep? and I believe when exploring mental illness, we should get a good sense of the character’s personality and in extension, their struggles.

      About rawness:
      For me, I would describe rawness as honesty, even if it is unpleasant. Or, without sugarcoating the truth. To express something – an idea or emotion – without disguise … if that makes sense?

      A book that had ‘rawness’ to me was For Today I Am a Boy (which I wholeheartedly recommend). It was sometimes painful to read, because it displayed a very honest and very explicit image of body trauma (associated with being transgendered), and other struggles of being transgendered.

      (Does that all make sense? Sorry for the super long reply!!)

      • No need to apologise for a long reply, this is amazing, thank you so much for going so in-depth with me. Also your definition of “rawness” is great, I definitely see the need for that, but would struggle to name any books for young audiences I’ve read that fit that description. I’ve read adult fiction that has that same raw quality, but those tend to revolve around issues that aren’t as relevant to my age and personal experience.

        I would be really interested to see a young adult book with a depressed main character who is already in a healthy, supportive relationship. If that removed all the romantic will-they-get-together/will-they-save-each-other, because they’re already together, and the partner doesn’t have the power to “fix”them.

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