All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven was pitched to me on Goodreads as “The Fault in Our Stars meets Eleanor and Park” and, I’ll admit, I can sometimes be a little pretentious when it comes to sales pitches like this. I want books to be sold to me of their own merit not based on the merit of other books that have been successful. That being said, and keeping in mind that I haven’t read Eleanor and Park, I can say that the comparison to TFiOS is not unwarranted. In the same way that TFiOS discussed teens living with cancer without being a book about cancer, All the Bright Places is a book about teens living with mental illness without being a book about mental illness. It is moving, tragic, and heart-warming. Now, on this site I tend to be rather cavalier in how I toe the line between avoiding and addressing spoilers in stories I review. This is because I want to talk about the content of the novel in its entirety without necessarily spoiling anything for people who haven’t had a chance to experience it for themselves. But in this case I’m going to issue a warning: abandon all hope of avoiding spoilers, ye who enter here. As such, if what I’ve said above is enough to inspire you to read the book and you haven’t done so already I HIGHLY RECOMMEND DOING THAT before continuing. Now, with that out of the way, let’s talk about the book.
All the Bright Places jumps back and forth between its two main characters Theodore Finch and Violet Markey. Normally, I find this kind of jumping back and forth between characters in a romantic relationship to be more annoying than romantically tense. It ends up being a game of which of them has the most unvoiced romantic teen worries and just leaves me wishing they would talk to each other. Thankfully, All the Bright Places does not use this mechanic. Instead, the hopping back and forth between its two principle characters is not only effective but essential. This is due to the way in which the novel accomplishes two things: it allows us to see Theodore Finch as a person, through and through, even as he struggles day to day with his undiagnosed mental illness (on top of a heap of other personal and emotional problems that would and are tough on any teenager) and the way in which Violet is healed following her personal tragedy because of his love for her and her love for him.
The character development in this novel is incredible for both Violet and Finch, though not really for any of the other characters. The assortment of supporting cast are nothing but that: foils by which the principle characters’ development progresses. The chemistry between both characters is fantastic and one of the novel’s strongest assets. Violet Markey is an impressive, complex, and emotionally diverse character. Her constant struggle with tragedy through the novel is at once compelling, heart-wrenching, and true to life. Her grief, her self-deprecation, and her fears all carry the weight of realism. The consummate survivor of tragedies, both the first and third acts so accurately portray her sense of guilt and loss, not shying away from the realities of how survivors blame themselves for the tragedies that happen around them. Her struggles to make sense of how to continue with the loss of her sister and then struggle with the reality of Finch’s suicide come from Jennifer Niven’s own real-life experiences with loss and guilt, as she outlines in her Author’s Notes. There is a lot of sad, but there is the second act. The middle section of the novel where Finch looks for and gets, as he says, all his perfect days. The ending is made enormously more tragic by the happiness and warmth of the middle section of the novel as the two characters find strength and love in each other.
I don’t want to sound overly dramatic but Theodore Finch is a revelation. He is such a powerful force in the novel, a tapestry of thought and emotion and dreams, long before the words “bipolar disorder” are ever spoken aloud in the novel. It is clear from the opening chapter that Finch has some form of undiagnosed mental illness but he never thinks of himself within the confines of a label. His portrayal is rich, complex, and real. By the time someone suggests that Finch might be bipolar you’ve fallen in love with his exuberance, his enthusiasm, and his perspective on life so that you can’t fit him into the typical stigmatized confines of his probable diagnosis. Following along as he faces his broken home, his abusive father, his sense of abandonment, the constant harassment and bullying at school, and his mental illness, you are confronted with one inescapable conclusion: Theodore Finch is not a weak person. He is incredibly strong. But he still commits suicide because “maybe [he] felt like he didn’t [have a choice], even though he did” (Niven 348) and that to me is the biggest tragedy of all. Even as I write this I find myself partially incapable of articulating how the story of these two teens affected me, how the constant fierceness of Finch outshone any label he might have had. They might be characters in a novel but they feel too real.
Mental illness and teen suicide are realities. They are things many people do not want to acknowledge or address. As Jennifer Niven points out, “People rarely bring flowers to a suicide” (Niven 382). The stigmas are real and crushing. I don’t think I could nearly do justice to the topic in the way that this book does. It is powerful and it is true. I believe it is a book that deserves to be read and a story that needs to be told. It renders in sharp prose something that we often forget or don’t see. To end this, I will leave you with Jennifer Niven’s own words from her Author’s Note:
“If you think something is wrong, speak up.
You are not alone.
It is not your fault.
Help is out there.”
Final Verdict: 9/10