A slightly different post today. I recently read a young adult novel entitled All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven and although not aimed at my age group, it made an impact and I thought I would take a slightly older perspective. I feel I should highlight that this book, and therefore this review, discusses topics of suicide and severe depression. Please put your own safety first before reading.
All The Bright Places – Summary
All The Bright Places centres around themes of depression and suicide, something which is poignant and confronting for a teenage fiction novel but something that I believe is important to be highlighted. This is the summary from GoodReads:
“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.
This is an intense, gripping novel perfect for fans of Jay Asher, Rainbow Rowell, John Green, Gayle Forman, and Jenny Downham from a talented new voice in YA, Jennifer Niven.”
For the age group that this novel is addressing, it is written well. It is frank and real and raw about these sensitive issues and doesn’t attempt to wrap the reader in cotton wool. It is worth mentioning here that I personally wouldn’t recommend All The Bright Places to readers who suffer from suicidal thoughts or severe depression as it could be harmful and triggering. There are elements of the book that romanticise and trivialise suicide and its discussion of recovery strategies is questionable. For a novel that focuses so much on depression and suicide, it doesn’t seem to want to inspire hope in its readers or its characters. Personally, I felt for a time that the message of the novel was more damaging than good: it had elements of suggesting that if you are loved and you die, you will be an inspiration. Very damaging.
That being said, the dark themes are offset by a surprisingly light-hearted storyline of adventure and young love, with a hint of infatuation. Although the focus of All The Bright Places is on the mental health of Violet and Theodore, you quickly unpick the layers of their characters and urge for them to fall in love like any young novel characters should.
Comparisons to John Green are obvious. This is a very ‘Fault in Our Stars’ styled book, but for me, it translated better to an older audience. It felt less sappy and whimsical and more matter of fact. The writing is still simplistic and of that classic YA style, but when teamed with darker themes I felt this generally worked. As a representation of depression, the book does a good job of explaining the mind of Finch and how depression works and feels. I think for the target audience, having the story told from the perspective of the sufferer and somebody without depression really helps. It allows young people to position themselves alongside the characters easily.
The ending of the book for me was predictable and actually quite annoying. I won’t ruin it for you, but after a few chapters you can probably suss out what happens. The character progression felt stunted and the events leading to the ending felt rushed. I wanted this book to inspire and educate and it did that, but it could have done so much more, especially when you consider the moral messages it is trying to achieve and share.
The saving grace of this novel for me was the Author’s note. Niven explains her personal relationship to the story and includes an extensive list of helplines and services for a variety of countries. This is so important for this novel and I am so glad that the author recognised the opportunity she had to inadvertently help many young people. This cemented my initial fondness of the novel, because despite having a lot of cliché teen novel elements, it gives those vulnerable young people a lifeline. If this novel helps even one young person seek help, then it has done its job.