I read Jennifer Niven’s All The Bright Places recently, and I’ve been itching to share my thoughts on it. All the Bright Places is a work of realistic fiction that centers around two teens, Violet and Finch, who are struggling to push through complicated personal issues while also falling in love.
Violet and Finch have run in different social scenes for the last three years; Violet was a popular cheerleader until the sudden death of her older sister a few months before the book begins, and Finch has always been a class clown with a temper. They meet in the first chapter as they simultaneously play with the idea of jumping from their high-school’s bell tower, so right off the bat the reader knows that both main characters are deeply troubled. After talking each other down, Violet and Finch forge an intense friendship that turns into romance when they’re assigned to work together on a school assignment. The assignment takes them to a variety of hidden gems around their home state of Indiana; they visit a homemade roller coaster and a bookmobile graveyard. They “hike” to the highest point in the state (Indiana is extremely flat), and spend endless hours unraveling their complicated lives as they walk, bike, and drive from hidden gem to hidden gem.
In the end, though, the reality of what serious mental illness actually is catches up to the couple. When Finch begins fully descending into a manic episode, all the spontaneous and silly things he’s been doing all along are bathed in a new light. And Violet is left behind.
There were parts of this novel that were undeniably charming. The romance in it’s early stages is so, so sweet. Violet’s mourning process and the halting, introverted lifestyle she’s living as a result of her loss also feels fairly real. Another very real part of the novel is Finch’s charisma; when he’s on, when he’s together, he lives life to its fullest. Although his endless optimism and daring impulsiveness help Violet to heal, they’re also clues about the undiagnosed mental illness he suffers from.
And, with that, come the parts of the book that just felt wrong. The idea that the adults in Finch’s life, such as his parents, teachers, and counselors, would let his illness get so far out of hand given the bold, public nature of his symptoms was hard for me to swallow as an adult reader who is also a secondary-school teacher. Niven tries to help suspend this disbelief by painting a pretty negative view of Finch’s recently divorced parents, and having Finch secretly erase voicemails from his counselor, but I still couldn’t help but wonder why nobody in the book was more worried for him. In the end it’s poor, mourning Violet who puts her foot down and makes the effort to find Finch, albeit too late in the game.
Overall, I liked this book. It’s a tragedy, and I have to say that it’s not an uplifting one like The Fault in Our Stars or Eleanor and Park. It ends on a flat note, which I guess is more realistic when you think about it. The writing itself is very strong, with wonderful descriptions of weird tourist traps dotting the Indiana countryside, and the narration and voice switching between Violet and Finch. FInch’s voice was reminiscent of Sutter from The Spectacular Now; a kind of troubled manic pixie dream boy- voice, if you will.
This book would be appropriate for a high school or college-aged reader. I would discourage middle schooler’s from reading it right now, as there’s definitely some heavy subject matter in there that could absolutely be misinterpreted by an immature reader.