By: Abbie Millman
Exactly how dark is Jennifer Niven’s novel “All The Bright Places”? With a plot that revolves around the struggles of two young teenagers’ deteriorating mental health, it’s safe to say that this read is no walk in the park (despite the title of the book implying so).
Theodore Finch is obsessed with death, and has been for some time. Quite literally, the first line of page one asks, “Is today a good day to die?” Dealing with bipolar disorder, Finch (what he’s called throughout the book) has built up a reputation for impulsive outbursts, so much so that he is required weekly visits to the guidance counselor. However, luck takes a turn for “Theodore Freak” the day he meets Violet Markey on the ledge of the school bell tower—six stories above the ground. The verdict of “who saves whom” is, to say the least, convoluted.
Violet Markey is the typical popular highschool cheerleader. But, as she counts down the days to graduation, she is trying to overcome the shadow of grief that follows her older sister’s death. It is not until her life intertwines with Finch’s that she is now known as “Ultraviolet Remarkey-able.” Paired up for a class project intended to discover the “natural wonders” of their state, the two go where the road takes them, meaning just about anywhere. But as Violet’s world begins to grow, Finch’s starts to shrink.
It is no secret that regardless of Niven’s novel being classified as YA fiction, this book is filled to the brim with adult topics and content. From rough language to mature intimacy, this is not exactly a book one would want to hand over to a wide-eyed sixth grader. This does limit the book to some extent in terms of audience, although it can be appreciated that “All The Bright Places” does not glorify mental health issues, so much so that a myriad of passages from the book could easily be translated into real life situations:
“I’m worried about you, and I want you to be okay, but I don’t know what to do for you.”
“You don’t need to do anything.” Then he does let go. He pulls away and sits up, staring at the wall.
“But I have to do something, because you might need help, I don’t know anyone who goes into the closet and stays there. You need to talk to your counselor, or maybe Kate. You can talk to my parents if you want.”
“Yeah—that’s not happening.” In the ultraviolet light, his teeth and eyes are glowing.
“I’m trying to help you.”
“I don’t need help. And I’m not Eleanor. Just because you couldn’t save her, don’t try to save me.” (Niven 306)
While this novel does have its shining moments, these moments are occasionally overshadowed by the typical teenage montage of fun and adventure, as if parents and gas money cease to exist. This proves to be distasteful towards the end of the novel, particularly when the concept of a scavenger hunt is tied to a death, similar to the infamous cassette tapes from the Netflix Original “13 Reasons Why.”
By no means is “All The Bright Places” a cheerful tale (even though Niven tries to add elements of such). This likely explains why the book did not translate well into a Netflix Original movie, which also felt lacking substance and closure. Perhaps taking an emotional approach on the alternating perspectives of Violet and Finch would have helped concoct a more stirring experience for the reader, as opposed to an attempt at a poetic approach. At times it felt like anything that was said reached the extent to “I’m angry today. Why am I angry? I’m always angry. The rain stopped. I leaned against my car window. It’s pizza day. I don’t think I’ll die on Pizza day. There are better days to die.” Niven’s work is not exactly groundbreaking stylistically speaking. Quite frankly reading this book will likely put you in a worse mood than you were in when you started it, but for the sake of trying something new, it will not hurt to give it a try.
Niven, Jennifer. All The Bright Places. Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.