Review: All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

All the Bright Places book coverAll the Bright Places sort of destroyed me for a day, it was so emotionally demanding. I mean, the story took me through the wringer and once I’d finished it, I couldn’t stop thinking about it and reliving the emotions I’d felt while reading it. I came to the book without being aware of the hype and the comparisons to Eleanor and Park and The Fault in Our Stars. Despite that, Eleanor and Park was exactly the book it made me think of, not because of the story, but because of the emotional depth and the journey it took me on.

Mental illness and suicide are at the forefront of everything in the book, but the story goes beyond the mental illness to tell a story about two teenagers who seem unbelievably real. Violet Markey was in a car accident that killed her sister several months before the book begins. Violet blames herself for what happened and has pretty much stopped living. She just floats from day to day and slips further into depression. The things she used to care about most don’t matter to her at all anymore. One day her feet carry her to the top of her school’s six-story-tall bell tower.

That’s where she encounters Theodore Finch, the school’s resident “freak,” as the bullies call him. But Finch isn’t a freak—he’s a kid with a serious and treatable mental illness that he doesn’t understand or want to acknowledge. We don’t initially have a name for what’s wrong with him, but he loses track of time, sometimes seems to wake up with no memory of how he got places, goes days without sleeping, and at times has so much energy that he has to run for miles to feel normal again. It’s not hard to figure it out if you know a little about mental illness, but it doesn’t get named until close to the end.

Finch is self-aware despite being afraid of labels, which he thinks will lead to being mistaken for a mental illness. Here he is thinking about a breakdown he had:

It’s my experience that people are a lot more sympathetic when they can see you hurting, and for the millionth time in my life I wish for measles or smallpox or some other recognizable just to make it simple for me and also for them.

He’s not wrong.

Despite Finch’s obsession with death, I was convinced throughout that he does want to live, but that he needs to learn how. And he’s trying. Although he resists the efforts of the school counselor he’s required to see, there are moments when he’s almost honest with him. And one time he tells Violet that he gets into these moods that he can’t shake:

“Kind of black, sinking moods. I imagine it’s what being in the eye of a tornado would be like. All calm and blinding at the same time. I hate them.”

It’s a huge moment because he’s actually being open and honest about how he feels. But Violet doesn’t have enough experience with him to recognize it. She chalks it up to being a teenager. Earlier in the book, he describes his father’s black moods:

“Like, the blackest black. Like, no moon, no stars, storm’s coming black.

She doesn’t make the connection right away—but it’s sad, because why would she? She’s not a psychiatrist. She’s just a kid with not much real-world experience.

If Finch isn’t going to get through to Violet, someone who deeply cares about him, what about his family? Violet and Finch’s families are radically different. Violet’s parents are engaged with her even though they don’t really know what to do for her. Admittedly, they don’t catch on to how badly Violet’s handling her sister’s death—they don’t see the depression for what it is. Probably they should have gotten her into counseling other than the school counselor. But it’s not unbelievable that they wouldn’t think of it.

Finch’s family, on the other hand, is horrible. He has a physically abusive father and a super-detached mother who is herself likely suffering from depression after being dumped by Finch’s father. She pays no attention to Finch or his sisters and it’s a deeply frustrating situation for the reader throughout the book. It’s so obvious that something is really, really wrong. But again, it’s entirely believable that a family like this could exist. It’s also clear that whatever afflicts Finch also afflicts his father and that his father would never, ever admit to having a mental illness.

I’ve talked mostly about Finch here, but Violet’s journey is just as significant. With his help, she learns to live again—she overcomes things that scare her and starts wanting to enjoy herself again. Rather than living a day at a time, she starts planning ahead. It’s a very realistic and believable recovery, given that her depression had a specific trigger.

Although this book is about mental illness and suicide, it’s not overly message-y. It’s a great story written really well. It is told in dual perspective, and Violet and Finch’s voices are totally different and true to their situations. Niven loads the book with little details that make the characters and settings authentic and relatable (this is one of the things that makes it like Eleanor and Park for me—because Rowell is a master of important details). Her descriptions throughout are excellent. Here’s Finch thinking about how he sometimes feels:

[T]he headaches are part of it. It’s like my brain is firing so fast that it can’t keep up with itself. Words. Colors. Sounds. Sometimes everything else fades into the background and all I’m left with is sound. I can hear everything, but not just hear it—I can feel it too. But then it can come on all at once—the sounds turn into light, and the light goes too bright, and it’s like it’s slicing me in two, and then comes the headache. But it’s not just a headache I feel, I can see it, like it’s made up of a million colors, all of them blinding.

I really cannot recommend this book enough. It’s important and well-executed and everyone should read it for insight into authentic depression and suicidal ideations, as well as for the good story.