Book Review: All the Bright Places
Jennifer Niven's All the Bright Places sheds light on teenagers battling inner demons, and it's much more moving than you'd expect.
Theodore Finch 'burns brightly'. He is a guitar-strumming, unruly, live-in-the-now, unpredictable 'wild child' with black hair and flashing blue eyes. He's also extremely unpopular in Bartlett High School, where he's been known as 'Theodore Freak' for being a little 'extreme'. After all, Theodore is no stranger to starting fights, taking up an accent, or going for a run for no reason at all. Most importantly, he does not adhere to high school's first rule - to lie low. Violet Markey, on the other hand, is slow and deliberate. She thinks, and then overthinks, hangs out with the 'in crowd' and counts down the days to graduation. But, their story, told between alternative viewpoints, begins when the duo meet on the edge of the school bell tower. At this point, you must be thinking this a story you've heard a thousand times before. But what this unlikely duo has in common is what makes All The Bright Places unique.
This is author Jennifer Niven's first foray into the world of young adult (YA) fiction, and it was inspired by her personal experience of being in love with a boy who was bipolar. Depression is a major theme the book deals with, for Violet is suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, brought on by her elder sister's sudden demise, while Finch's bipolar disorder makes him constantly consider suicide. Respite is felt when they are together though, and after they are paired for a Geography project, the two take off to rediscover the beauty hidden in all the bright places of their state.
Jennifer Niven pens their journey with a grace few could replicate. Every page has a thoughtfully written phrase or poignant quote that makes this a treat to read ("This is my secret -that at any moment I might fly away. Everyone on Earth but me - and now Violet - moves in slow motion, like they're filled with mud. We are faster than all of them"). But the best part of the book is its accurate description of mental health disorders - periods of feeling 'awake' and 'asleep' or suffering in silence rather than dealing with the fear of being 'labelled'. "Every 40 seconds, someone in this world dies by suicide," Niven writes in her author's note, and this is her way of getting those who need help to speak up. "You are not alone," she says. "It is not your fault. Help is out there."
Amidst the elegant prose and uplifting message, finding the same clichés we've seen in countless chick-lit or YA books feels grating. You have the snobby, popular It-girl who happens to be Violet's best friend; the popular guy who is head-over-heels in love with her; and the over-protective parents who ban her from meeting Finch (because what is more romantic than forbidden love?). In fact, most of the secondary characters feel more like afterthoughts, put in to move the plot along.
Despite these drawbacks, All the Bright Places is a memorable read, and one of the hit YA novels of the year. It was definitely good enough to warrant a film adaptation that will begin production sometime this year, starring Elle Fanning. Which just goes to show that despite the negative stigma attached to YA novels, there is still a market for them. All it needs is a good author and a fresh plot.