Book Club: All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

A captivating, charming and heart-breaking read about a girl who gets a new lease of life from a boy obsessed with death.

All The Bright Places Book Cover

“I’m broken and no one can fix it.” She’s one of the popular crowd who has strayed from the limelight following the death of her sister. He’s the local loose cannon they call ‘Theodore freak’, otherwise known as Finch. They meet on the ledge of the bell tower where they both go to school. The one thing they have in common? Their own personal demons that make both of them feel as though they have nowhere to turn…except towards each other. Slowly, Violet and Finch start to realise that there’s more to the other than meets the eye. Who knew that their fateful first meeting would spark an unlikely friendship that, ultimately, challenges their own perceptions of life? But, as one flourishes, the other finds themself being pulled down deeper and deeper by the quicksand, despite desperately trying to hold on. Will their new found happiness with each other be enough to save them both?

I was absolutely captivated by ‘All The Bright Places’ from beginning to end. While it’s a bittersweet love-story, it’s also so much more than that; highlighting important social issues such as bullying, mental illness (and the ignorance there of) and suicide. However, that isn’t to say that this book is in any way depressing – it isn’t. Insightful and informative? Yes. Depressing? No.

I loved that the story-telling was split into two perspectives – as opposed to just a singular point of view or the traditional numerical structure – as it allows readers to see, and understand, both perceptions of the same story. Because of this, it is well rounded and never one sided – showing audiences the journeys both Finch and Violet go on, separately as well as together.

From the beginning it becomes apparent that Finch is an extremely complex character. ‘Troubled’ and known to his peers as ‘Theodore freak’, he hides behind walls of witty comments and sarcasm, all the while projecting a false sense of bravado. “I’ve learned the hard way that the best thing to do is say nothing about what you’re thinking, if you say nothing, they’ll assume you’re thinking nothing, only what you let them see.” Finch is the most dangerous kind of mental illness sufferer as he disguises it well, not wanting to talk about his problems for fear of being labelled and therefore defined by his illness. “I’m not a compilation of symptoms, not a casualty of shitty parents and an even shittier chemical make-up. Not a problem, not a diagnosis, not an illness. I’m a person.”

Through this, All The Bright Places also highlights the stigma – and ignorance – surrounding mental illness, with Finch even stating that “there’s no such thing as being sick unless you can measure it with a thermometer.” As such, his family never address it as anything legitimate, preferring to just write it off as Finch being “in one of his moods.” They accept it as just something he does sometimes, instead of addressing why he behaves the way he does. However, readers are also shown that there is a vicious cycle here: Finch gets no help at home, but he also accepts no help from the likes of the school counsellor, or even Violet, for fear of judgement.

Throughout the story you see Finch struggle with wanting to stay ‘awake’ for as long as he can, but also plagued by thoughts of death; seemingly torn between wanting to live and wanting to die. As a character he’s very all over the place, which is reflective of his mental state. When he’s at his happiest, he’s witty, caring and seductive, however, when you delve below the surface you realise just how vulnerable he really is. The extent of Finch’s internal to-and-fro is further highlighted in the incident with the sleeping pills, as it shows readers the heart-breaking truth: Finch doesn’t actually want to die, he just needs help.

Contrastingly, after being talked down from the bell-tower ledge by Finch, Violet’s horizons expand as a result of her unexpected relationship with him. At the beginning of the story she, like Finch, feels isolated and insignificant following the untimely death of her sister Eleanor. Citing ‘extenuating circumstances’ as reasons not to overcome obstacles she faces, Violet finds herself trapped in her own little bubble. That is, until she meets Finch who despite –  and perhaps even because of – his own struggles, shows her that “it isn’t only hard times and hard people, there are bright spots too.”

Together, Violet and Finch complement each other: he pushes her boundaries, and in so doing forces her “out of (her) room and into the world” – showing her that life is best lived. In turn, she shows him that there’s a reason to stay ‘awake’ and be present in the world, even if you feel like there is “a great weight pulling you down, like it’s attached to your feet even if you can’t see it.” Striving to make him feel like he matters.

Every character within the story is written fantastically. They are all fleshed out, three-dimensional, realistic characters, and such is Niven’s writing that you can’t help but become attached and – in the case of the two main protagonists – feel a definite fondness for them. So taken was I that I actually cried like a baby when reading the final chapters.

If I had one criticism about ‘All The Bright Places’, it would be that, as a reader, I feel that Finch deserved to triumph. Triumph over his troubled upbringing. Triumph over everyone that had ever called him ‘Theodore Freak’. Triumph over his family’s ignorance and fear of speaking out. Triumph over his depression. To find happiness within himself, because as he knows, “no one else can keep you awake, or keep you from sleeping.” I don’t think Finch saw a lot of happiness in his life and I think he deserved some, as did Violet after everything she’d been through, so I’m glad that they found their little bit of happiness with each other.

I would’ve loved to have seen Finch become gradually even more positive: the ‘asleep’ a distant memory rather than a constant threat. Thus showing that depression, like any mental illness, is beatable. However, I also understand the reality of the situation and why it had to be that way, particularly due to Niven’s own experience with suicide – as you find out within the book’s closing acknowledgements. However, I was rooting for both Finch and Violet and wanted them to succeed.

On another note, I’d really like to wander some of the sites that Niven used in the story, particularly the world’s largest ball of paint. I’d also love to meet Niven and shake her hand because, to do what she has done, to take inspiration from such a painful personal experience is really courageous, and knowing that makes the story all the more poignant. I have a lot of respect for that and I applaud her for, somewhat, sharing her story as it could go on to help someone else. All The Bright Places has fast become one of my favourite books, with some of my all-time favourite quotes that I love and can identify with. I’d recommend it to anyone.

 

I’ve also heard recently that ‘All The Bright Places’ is currently being adapted into a film, which is set for release in 2017. As I’m such a big fan of the book I’m beyond excited, and curious, to see how it will translate and how the subject will be handled. However, In the meantime I’ll definitely be checking out Niven’s newest offering ‘Holding Up The Universe’, which I picked up a few weeks ago.

 

Have you read, or do you want to read, All The Bright Places? I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. Let’s start a discussion in the comments section. As always, thank you for reading. If you’d like to keep up to date with my posts, feel free to come and join me on:

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6 thoughts on “Book Club: All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

  1. Great review, Sophie! I loved this book too, and the ending had me doubling over. I loved the way certain elements were tackled in the book – especially the fact that love does not conquer all, and no one can really ‘save’ anyone unless they want to be saved.
    I do think the novel was over the top quirky in some places…. but I easily forgave that because of everything else!

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