I can count on one hand the number of books that have made me shed a tear. And that’s usually it; one single tear and a slight burning in the back of the throat. It takes a singular author to make me cry, because I don’t cry easily.
But this book, All The Bright Places, had me openly weeping. I had to keep stopping and starting during the last few chapters because the words were swimming on the page because of the unshed (and shed) tears. And that last scene? I was sobbing. Ugly sobbing. Unstoppable sobbing.
All The Bright Places may be the most painfully beautiful book that I have ever read. Theodore Finch and Violet Markey meet on the ledge of the bell tower of their school. Both were up there to jump. But Finch talks Violet down and the book goes on from there.
Both characters are the kinds of tragic heroes that come from the grief YA trend that started a few years back. One of them comes from an abusive/neglectful family and the other survived a car accident that killed their sister. But these two find solace in each other. Violet becomes a sort of beacon of hope for Finch and Finch reminds Violet what it’s like to live unafraid. He helps her overcome the tragedies in her past.
The plot is simple, because All The Bright Places is more of an exploration into character, seeing as the focus here is on mental health. Essentially, Finch and Violet are forced together because of a school project. And it is through this project that these two find each other. This simple plot is not a bad thing at all. In fact, Niven takes this plot and makes it mean something. She fills it with characters who never once feel like anything less than three-dimensional. Even Finch’s sisters and Violet’s parents. Every character has a story, and I love it.
Finch is an incredible character. And, more to the point, I think Niven really truly understands mental health issues. She writes Finch’s extreme highs and extreme lows gorgeously, but what she does even better is the in between. Finch waits for the Asleep (his lows) and is constantly terrified that it is lurking somewhere, waiting for him. And so, because of his fear of the Asleep, Finch never sleeps. At least, not much.
More to the point, Niven sneaks in the symptoms of suicidality as character trait. For one thing, Finch keeps a diary of whether he has thought about committing suicide on any particular day, how he would do it, and how likely it would have been that he would act on those thoughts. Planning is an incredibly telling symptom of suicidality.
Plus, Finch can spout off random trivia about famous people who have committed suicide, statistics on different forms of suicide, and often plans his (and other people’s) epitaph. Not only this, but Finch is always a different version of himself. There’s Badass Finch, Slacker Finch, 80’s Kid Finch, and All-American Finch, just to name a few. Although I’m not entirely sure, I feel like this (as well as the suicidal thoughts diary and trivia) was also a symptom of Finch’s mental state.
The best/worst part about Finch’s character is how relatable he is about getting help. He really likes and respects his counsellor but he lies to that counsellor. Finch repeatedly tells himself to not be seen, to make himself smaller, to not be a burden, and so he never articulates the truth about how he is feeling. And that is a huge problem when is comes to mental health issues, across all ages. This is such a common occurrence. People don’t seek help because they don’t want to be a bother, or they don’t see themselves as being worth the trouble and as such, don’t get the help that this thinking pattern actually indicates that they need.
I also feel as though Violet and Finch represent two different kinds of depression. Well, Finch is diagnosed with bipolar by his counsellor partway through the book, but what I mean is that Finch’s mental health issues are part of his disease. Whereas Violet, and I am in no way trying to lessen the pain she would have felt, is suffering from acute grief (I can’t remember the actual term for it). In other words, Violet is able to overcome her depression with help from Finch and her family and by taking tiny steps back into the world. Finch does this too, but because his is actually a sickness and not circumstantial, this only works for a little while. He needs help, and he never gets it.
These characters were so real for me that I feel like I’m not really reviewing the book itself. But I feel like discussing the characters and their issues as though they are real (which, in a way they are; so many people go through these things every single day), is a review in and of itself. Proper characterisation means that the characters stay with you, long after the book is closed. And Niven has most definitely done this.
Seeing as this is a review, I do want to talk about a tiny writerly detail that Niven throws in. In the first part of the book, Violet is counting down the days until she can leave home and crosses off those days on her calendar in big, black x’s. Finch is counting the days in which is he awake (that is, days he hasn’t succumbed to the Asleep). Both of these countdowns appear at the beginning of the characters’ respective chapters. But after they both experience something (I don’t want to spoil anything!), they stop counting, and start living day-to-day. This is both a good and a bad thing. Well, it starts out well for both characters and then slowly becomes a bad thing for the other.
All The Bright Places is poignant. It will make you think. It will make you cry. And it is an important novel for everyone to read. These characters will stay with you. I finished this book last night and I still feel like I need a hug to deal with what happens. So, PSA, don’t read the last few chapters alone. Or, at least, make sure there’s someone there to hug you when you’re finished.