‘Bright’ Is In The Title, But It’s A Dark Book

Hello world, book #28 was a quick read, and I finished it tonight and it was wonderful and unexpected. I read All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven, and I would highly recommend it. It’s this tragic love story between two high school seniors, and I don’t really know why, but I love high school love stories.

I hadn’t heard anything about this novel, and I’d also never heard of Niven. This book is Niven’s first time writing YA, but she has quite a lineup of adult novels and nonfiction books – which I now (of course) want to read. Anyway though, All The Bright Places is a really heartbreaking and beautiful story.The book reads kind of like a John Green novel, with the outspoken, contradictory teen characters who quote literature and philosophy that seems way above their 17-going-on-18-year-old comprehension. At the same time, though, I guess that is one of the defining features of being a teenager. You read or hear something influential during a formative period and it can end up as an obsession and a lifestyle.

And even though I’m kind of over this John Green obsession (there are other authors in the world, people), I do find myself easily getting invested in these sorts of lead characters. It’s definitely not that they’re relatable, because they aren’t. But I think it’s something about how extreme they are.

So in ATBP, the lead character is a boy named Theo Finch. The beginning of his narrative marks the beginning of a really troubling story of a struggling boy who hides behind humor and easily alternated identities. Finch constantly refers to time spent “Awake” compared to being “Asleep,” alluding to some sort of mental disorder, probably bipolar.

The reader meets Finch at the beginning of a manic episode (“Awake”) as he’s standing on the ledge of a 6 story bell tower contemplating suicide. It is here that he meets Violet Markey, the other lead character and his eventual love interest. She’s one of the popular girls (Finch was coined a freak in middle school) but she’s trying to cope with the recent death of her older sister.

Theo ironically talks Violet off the ledge and an unlikely friendship/romance thing is formed. The two have to pair up for a project that involves getting to know their home state (Indiana) and all that it has to offer, so they spend their spring semester “wandering” the state and falling in love and mostly being precious.

The reason I say that this book was unexpected is because it gets very real, more than in the teen angst way that I was expecting. I won’t ruin anything, but Finch’s depression begins to spiral in ways that neither he nor Violet is equipped to deal with. Because of a disjointed family with an absent dad and an overworked mom, a lot of his issues go unnoticed and unaddressed. All of his disturbing behavior is mostly chalked up to him being quirky and different.

That’s why this book was awesome – because I think it portrayed mental illness in a really real light. Finch is constantly having to remind himself of the positive things happening in his life, but there’s still this desperate, underlying feeling that it’s not enough to counteract his disease, or what he calls “going to sleep.”

The novel also covers the issue of blame really well, both in cases of mental illness and suicide as well as accidental deaths. Violet was in the car with her sister, and suggested an alternate route home, the night she died. Of course the roads were icy and they had been at a party, but Violet ends up internalizing a lot of that blame, as I’m sure you would in that situation.

I felt like it was really well done. The whole book is about this kind of taboo topic, but Niven covers it well and thoroughly. I found myself wondering why Finch wouldn’t just get help, take medication or something, but it’s clearly not that simple. I remember a friend of mine talking to me after she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and she was terrified to take her medication because she hated the idea of feeling numb to her highs.

And Finch’s highs are high, he runs and writes everything down and doesn’t sleep. Of course, he also deludes himself into believing that if he just never stops, he can control it and he’ll never have another low, but that’s obviously not the way the brain works. Niven created a character who is so irrational in such a rational way, that reading about him is gripping and really sad.

So! Everyone should read All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven, it’s a good one. Sidenote: tomorrow (May 2) is National Independent Bookstore Day! It’s the perfect excuse to go to your local bookstore and buy one of everything, take advantage. ◊

‘But I’m not a compilation of symptoms. Not a casualty of shitty parents and an even shittier chemical makeup. Not a problem. Not a diagnosis. Not an illness. Not something to be rescued. I’m a person.'”

– page 307

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