Kate’s Books: All the Bright Places

all-the-bright-places

So it’s been a while since I’ve posted an individual review (see my last one here). It’s not that I haven’t read any particularly worthwhile books lately – it’s just that I have an insane backlog of book reviews to get on. September and October were really bad months for my tbr (see a full list here) and I read absolutely nothing at all. So I’m more or less devouring everything I can get my hands on for November, which, as you can imagine, has pretty much left me scrabbling to catch up on all my reviews. Jfc I am a terrible book blogger.

I picked up All the Bright Places on the recommendation of a friend. In hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have listened to her, because this is someone who thinks The Fault In Our Stars was brilliant and John Green is the pinnacle of human evolution. Nevertheless, I had space in my “4 books a month” quota for one more, so I went ahead and bought a copy. Biggest regret of November 2016. I could’ve bought two caramel macchiatos with the money I spent on that book.

Brace yourselves, guys, gals, and non-binary pals, for the first ever Kate’s Books post to review…a book I did not like.

But first, a few warnings!

  1. I cannot properly talk about this book without spoiling. So if that’s the sort of thing that bothers you, please skip this post.
  2. Trigger warnings for suicidal thoughts, descriptions of depression, and talk of self-harm. Please tread carefully.

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The plot:

Violet Markey was once a straight-A student, an avid writer, popular at school, but her life comes screeching to a halt when her beloved sister dies in a car accident. Standing on the edge of the bell tower in school, she comes across the school “freak”, Theodore Finch.

At first, Violet thinks nothing of the strange boy who talked her down, but then the two are paired for a school project on the “natural wonders” of their state. They wander around Indiana, visiting weird, random roadside attractions and slowly beginning to open up to each other. Violet discovers a Finch utterly different from the image he projects in school, and Finch begins to break the wall erected around Violet’s heart.

Their wanderings come to mean more than just a school project. Violet learns to stop counting the days and start living them, and slowly finds herself falling for Finch. However as her world begins to grow, Finch’s begins to shrink.

What I liked:

  • Jennifer Niven is a really good writer. I actually initially really liked the book, and this is because of Niven’s prose. Her descriptions made my imaginings more vivid, and she has this way of writing that really sucked me in and made me feel as though I was right there with Violet and Finch.
  • I actually really liked the dialogue between Violet and Finch. I know a lot of people don’t like it when teenaged characters start whipping out literary references and intelligent dialogue, but personally, I adore it. When people criticize YA authors for writing their teenage characters as “sounding too smart”, I feel just the tiniest bit insulted. I mean, have you met every teenager in the world, that you can say that a teenaged character sounds too smart? Not to toot my own horn, but my friends and I actually did talk like that when we were younger. We were emo loners with black nail polish, notebooks full of bad poetry, and feelings of superiority over our more popular peers – of course we read Virginia Woolf.
  • Finch’s mood swings are amazingly portrayed. I could really feel the intensity of his emotions and how struggled to overcome his bipolarity.
  • I appreciate Niven’s attempt to bring light to the issue of mental illness. According to some interviews, years ago, Niven knew a boy who had depression and bipolar disorder, and it was on her experiences with this boy that she based this book. I liked that the author’s notes in the book contained sources for readers to turn to if they or anyone they knew was suffering from mental illness. Niven’s intentions, at least, were good.

What I didn’t like:

(SPOILERS AHOY!)

Before I start in on my usual bullet point format of my book reviews, I’d just like to say that my dislike of this book stems from just one major point: Jennifer Niven totally and utterly fails to deliver on her portrayal of mental illness.

Disclaimer: A lot of my misgivings about this book’s handling of mental illness are based on my own experiences with a very close friend’s mental illness. This girl and I grew up together, and shortly after her mother passed away, she tried to commit suicide. I was the one who found her and rushed her to the ER. This was about three years ago, and since then, me and a couple other girls from our friend group have been in charge of our friend’s maintenance (helping her with stuff like follow-up appointments with her psychiatrists, keeping track of her medication, etc.). She’s doing much better now, but the past three years have been pretty much a “baptism by fire” type deal regarding therapy and psychiatric help for me. Nevertheless, I am not an expert on mental health and do not claim to be one. Take everything I say with a grain of salt.

  • Finch is a textbook Manic Pixie Dream Guy. Everything about him only exists to help Violet get better and recover from her own depression. He has all the beginnings of an interesting, well-rounded character, but all of that is dedicated to helping Violet get back on her feet. His character literally serves no other purpose.
  • Even Finch’s suicide is not about him. He spends the whole book trying to find ways to “stay awake” and combat his mental illness. But when he finally succumbs and commits suicide, instead of being about his struggles, his suicide is yet another avenue for Violet to heal. He leaves her a series of clues to all the places he visited, or “wandered to”, to use the book’s terminology, prior to committing suicide, in a sort of treasure hunt across Indiana that helps Violet comes to term with her sister’s death. I mean, what? The poor kid dies and it’s still a plot device for the girl to get better? Come on.
  • The book does an awful job portraying the road to recovery from mental illness. Instead of getting professional help, Violet and Finch are shown “getting better” through going on whimsical dates and waxing philosophical with each other. Far be it from me to tell people with mental illness what form their recovery should take, but professional help should not take a back-burner to running around with a significant other.
  • Speaking of professional help, this was totally demonized in this book, and I find this un-fucking-acceptable. Seeing a psychiatrist or relying on medication is already stigmatized enough – we don’t need to see it in literature too. This one, more than anything, really pissed me off. Finch tries to attend a therapy session and describes the kids there as having “the dull, vacant look of people on drugs”. NO. God, I wanted to throw the book at the wall when I read that line. Repeat after me: medication is not bad, people. For a lot of people, antidepressants are necessary, important, and effective. And honestly, fuck anyone who thinks lesser of people with mental illness who depend on medication.
  • The novel ends on a very fatalistic note. As I mentioned earlier, Finch commits suicide. I don’t think no book ever should have characters that commit suicide, and in fact, such a topic, when handled well, can make for not only an excellent read, but a socially relevant one as well. However, that’s where Niven failed. The suicide in this book was not handled well. Instead of a “please don’t commit suicide, every life – including yours – matters” vibe, what I got was the romanticization of suicide. Which is absolutely not okay.

Verdict:

2/5. Good writing, terrible handling of the subject matter. If you suffer from a mental illness yourself, please, please, please tread cautiously if you decide to read this book.

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4 thoughts on “Kate’s Books: All the Bright Places

  1. I haven’t read this one, but I picked up another Niven book, Holding Up The Universe. I don’t know if I just wasn’t in the mood for YA when I read that book, but I didn’t like it, too. Haha.

    Like

    1. Ooh, I haven’t read that one yet. I’m pretty okay with YA myself, but there are just some examples that super rub me the wrong way, especially when they deal with sensitive subject matter but end up failing on that count 😦

      Like

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