“The thing I realize is, that it’s not what you take, it’s what you leave.”
All The Bright Places is a 2015 young adult book by Jennifer Niven about two highschool students – Theodore Finch and Violet Markey – who meet on the ledge of the bell tower at school. At first, it’s unclear who saves whom, but 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.
The following post is a review of the book only. You can read my review of the book in comparison to the film adaptation here.
Just as is written, “Sometimes there’s beauty in the tough words – it’s all in how you read them.” Whilst I enjoyed this book when I first read it, I didn’t feel much of a connection to it at the time. On a second reading, however, it really hit me. When you know what’s going to happen, it’s much easier to pick up on the smaller details a second time around, seeing the hints of what’s to come earlier on, with the story’s messages standing out more predominantly.
Although I have some problems with the book’s ending which I will discuss further down, All The Bright Places is a brilliantly developed story and its themes are set up incredibly well. It’s a book that makes you both think and feel, and even though it is a young adult story led by high school-aged characters, it’s still a story that sparks a reaction.
Alternating between chapters narrated by Finch and Violet, you really get to see inside these characters’ young minds. The book does an amazing job of exploring the thoughts of these characters who each have a lot to deal with, showing two contrasting sides to how the mind can work – the light in the world through Violet’s progressions, but also the dark times through Finch’s continuous struggles.
For the darker moments, Niven doesn’t hold anything back, brilliantly captures what it’s like inside the head of somebody struggling with a mental illness. By showing the darkest of depths that your thoughts can go to, she gives a brilliant insight into how you can feel like you’re the only person in the world, despite having important people around you.
“It’s my experience that people are a lot more sympathetic if they can see you hurting, and for the millionth time in my life I wish for measles or smallpox or some other easily understood disease just to make it easier on me and also on them.”
Whether you’ve personally felt like these characters or not, the two leads are immensely relatable because of the range of the emotions they feel, not just relating to mental illness but also of the general pressures of being a teenager. Their emotions feel very genuine, but whilst you always hold out hope with a story like this, hoping that one character can change another, that their love for one another can be enough to drag themselves out of the quicksand, that’s rarely the case. Once you’re in that mindset, it’s almost impossible to get out, and that’s why this book is so heartbreaking.
Most of all, the book highlights that anybody can be struggling with a mental illness and that not everybody shows their struggles on the outside. It also shows that having a mental illness can relate to anything from being depressed to suffering from bulimia, highlighting that things aren’t always as straightforward as a label might suggest. It’s a really relevant topic that needs a lot more recognition, emphasising the need for young people (or people of all ages, for that matter) to talk to somebody and share the load if they aren’t coping with something going on in their life.
“I know life well enough to know you can’t count on things staying around or standing still, no matter how much you want them to. You can’t stop people from dying. You can’t stop them from going away. You can’t stop yourself from going away either. I know myself well enough to know that no one else can keep you awake or keep you from sleeping.”
However, whilst I think the book sets up its discussions well, I do think that Niven could have done a lot more with the subject in the final few chapters. When Finch is gone, there’s not a lot of time spent reflecting on what he did and why, leaving no message of hope or looking at how to better help somebody going through the same thing.
Everybody is too quick to say that was just the way Finch was and that it’s too late to think back on what-ifs. Only one character questions if they could have done more, but the adults, especially, show very little attention to the emotions of these young characters. They all reflect their responsibilities and get away with having very little input, not showing a level of support that you would hope to see.
Moreso, instead of sending a bigger message about the importance of communication or exploring Finch’s potential diagnosis of being bipolar more, the use of these heavy themes seem to be cut short, not ending with a standing-on-a-ledge-impact that the book began with.
Still, the book does a great job of discussing some really important issues and includes some wonderful messages about finding light in the darkest of places. It may neglect to conclude its themes in a more significant way, but it’s still a powerful story with lovely characters and relationships that has a lot to take away from.