All The Bright Places
by Jennifer Niven
Hardcover, 400 pages
Alfred A. Knopf, January 6, 2015
Finch and Violet meet on the ledge of their school's bell tower one fall afternoon, each wondering what it would be like to end it all, though stopping short of taking the leap after being surprised to find the other there. Finch, a self-proclaimed loner who is obsessed with death is surprised to find popular, outgoing Violet in the same situation, though initially she won't admit her reasons for being on the ledge that day. While she resists his efforts to form a friendship, he arranges for them to be partners on a class project, determined to get to know her. During their year together, the two broken teens wander their state, finding beauty and happiness in odd places.
"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"
With this book, Jennifer Niven may have changed my mind about YA fiction. Usually I find that tales of heartbroken, "damaged" teens feel forced: rife with kids who can't send a text using full words launching into melodramatic speeches (yeah, I'm looking at you, Fault in Our Stars) and parents who are a stereotype. All The Bright Places, however, manages to not only capture authentic teen voices, but also show their daily struggles (bullying, friendships, searching for identity, family dynamics, etc.) without being patronizing.
That's not to say there aren't problems with this novel. The school they attend seems woefully ill-equipped to deal with teenagers. A guidance counselor whom Finch sees regularly knows of his bell tower visit but doesn't make a concerted effort to contact Finch's parents, voice mails go home unanswered for the entire year with no follow-up, Finch regularly misses weeks of school yet there's no fall out. Also the secondary characters are not well developed and sometimes fade into the background, with the possible exception of Violet and Finch's parents, who demonstrate their dysfunction in opposing ways.
The remarkable thing about this novel, however, is how Niven realistically portrays depression and mental illness. Finch describes his dark times:
I get into these moods sometimes, and I can't shake them. Kind of black sinking moods. I can imagine it's like what being in the eye of a tornado would be like, all calm and blinding at the same time. I hate them.
Finch copes by hiding in his closet, making his world small and manageable, until he feels "awake" again and can emerge to face everything again. A school counselor suggests he may have bipolar disorder and Finch fights this suggestion, afraid that he will become even more of a "freak." Niven manages to capture Finch's desire for understanding even as he resists the label of a diagnosis.
Strangely, even though others have said that they saw the ending coming, I was so swept up in the story and my concern for these two characters that I was as blindsided by the ending as the characters were - surprised, even though in retrospect, it was probably inevitable. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys John Greene and Rainbow Rowell...but also to those who don't. This book was pitch-perfect in a field of books that otherwise strain a bit too hard to hit the right note.