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 characters. And 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.
Book Name: All The Bright Places
Author: Jennifer Niven