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All the Bright Places

Review

All the Bright Places

ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES, adult author Jennifer Niven's first YA book, starts with a scene about as intense as it gets. A boy and a girl stand atop a bell tower outside their school; each is thinking, either abstractly or concretely, about jumping. Both think they are alone, but when they become aware of one another, neither one will ever be the same.

To many, the appearance of Theodore Finch (known by many at school as "Freak") atop the bell tower is no great surprise. He's been known for his erratic, devil-may-care behavior, his disregard for authority and his sometimes violent responses to being frequently bullied. He's even been listed at the top of a "most likely to be suicidal" list published by the school's underground newspaper.

Violet Markey's appearance on the bell tower is a little more surprising. Even though Violet is still grieving her older sister Eleanor's death in a car crash the year before, she seems well-adjusted enough. She's a popular girl after all, with a ton of friends and the admiration and sympathy of her teachers. Everyone assumes that when both Violet and Theo come down the bell tower stairs alive, Violet deserves the credit for saving Finch --- but what if it's really the other way around?

 

ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES is that rare book that manages to be heartbreaking and heart-expanding simultaneously.

In the days following their first encounter, Finch falls hard for Violet and becomes determined to be her friend (or more). He insists on teaming up with her for their senior year project devoted to finding and writing about the "wonders" in their state of Indiana. Violet resists at first --- among other things, she's been too terrified to get in a car ever since Eleanor's death, and she's literally just marking the days until she can graduate from high school and make a fresh start somewhere else. But Finch's boundless energy and enthusiasm --- not to mention his easy intelligence and his beautiful eyes --- eventually charm Violet, and the two begin a relationship that extends beyond their classroom project work. But even as their wanderings help Violet begin to imagine a more expansive future for herself, Finch is secretly dreading the return of the darkness that makes it impossible for him to imagine a future for himself at all.

ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES is that rare book that manages to be heartbreaking and heart-expanding simultaneously. Readers will find themselves cheering for Violet's growth and recovery even as they dread what might happen to the increasingly erratic and distant Finch. The romance between the two is plausible yet unpredictable and charming, and their mission to uncover the unexpected beauties of their home state --- and to leave a piece of themselves behind at each one --- may prompt similar adventurous impulses among readers.

In an afterword, the author explains her personal interest in the mental health issues at the heart of her novel; perhaps it is this personal history in part that leads her to portray mental illness so richly and sympathetically. She resists putting a label on Finch's condition until quite late in the novel, which allows readers to come to know him as a fully-formed character --- and to draw their own conclusions about what drives him --- rather than reducing him to a diagnosis early on. This kind of portrayal is all too rare, and is valuable in helping humanize mental illness and enhance the understanding that mental illness can strike anyone --- even that charming boy with the big heart and the way with words.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on October 17, 2014

All the Bright Places
by Jennifer Niven

  • Publication Date: September 13, 2016
  • Genres: Young Adult 14+
  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Ember
  • ISBN-10: 0385755910
  • ISBN-13: 9780385755917