Review: All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

Initial reaction: There were moments I found myself connecting with the narrative, because – for all intents and purposes, it had it’s heart in the right place. Finch and Violet have some very honest accounts of the issues they’re dealing with.

But there were so many things wrong with this book to counteract the good of it.

Full review:

I thought of two songs in my head in the aftermath of reading this book: Gilbert O’ Sullivan’s “Alone Again Naturally” and Tove Lo’s “Moments.” Both thematically bringing to mind things about this book, so have at them if you’re curious and haven’t heard them.

Preface to this review: I feel “All the Bright Places” had moments of accuracy mixed in with things that tried to drive home the point so hard and so unrealistically that it undermined the intentions of the entire narrative when it was all said and done. Don’t get me wrong, I respect Niven was inspired to do this with several noted losses in her family and loved ones, but inspiration and getting factual details right does not excuse one from completely skewing the emotional clarity and promise of a work, especially when there are so many details that are straight up manipulative. I don’t say this to be crude, but I was so upset with the way this book chose to depict suicide and mental illness that I couldn’t return this book back to my library fast enough – I was horrified. I got the intention behind the book, but the execution just wasn’t…there.

If it’s anything, now I know (even more, not counting my own experiences and offense with that blurb) why people were so offended by the blurb of the book Niven’s writing following this one – because this book happens to make the same mistakes in the context of the story that the other book makes in the blurb – taking some very tough topics, trying to insert humor in an inappropriate way, and then not really understanding that instead of illuminating the issue in a way that’s meaningful and plays down the harmful attitudes – it ends up playing right into them and even contradicting several meaningful contributions to the subject matter.

John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars” – to me – does this too with the depiction of cancer, so I don’t know if this novel does it better or worse. I would say, for me, it had its moments of good and moments that were cringeworthy and absolutely not funny (even when they were meant to be) or endearing.

I’ll start with the note that sardonic or self-depricating humor is something that’s very hard to pull off in any media format, even in literature. Usually self-depricating humor works best when you already know certain pieces of the history of a character and can put the put-downs in context with what you know from that person or the way they tell that experience and then follow it up. Sardonic humor works more with moments of truth in the vein of an experience that may be unpleasant or something people don’t like to think or speak about. I saw that Niven was going for this even in the opening scenes of “All the Bright Places”, where Theodore Finch (or Theo or Finch) is standing at the tower ledge about to throw himself off. Yet, it was hard even to note how serious he was, and when he notices Violet about to throw herself off the tower.

Both are teens with deeply rooted issues – Violet losing her sister in a horrific accident and having survivors guilt. Finch has a combination of manic/bipolar depression and family issues – per his father’s abusive behavior and new family dynamic. I could feel for them both in spaces, but what got to me was how overly quirky both of them were presented. It equally disturbed me that not only Finch made it out like Violet saved him AND that their relationship was defined as them saving each other (“I can heal your illness/issues with the power of LOVE!” Ye Gods I hate that trope in YA and NA both as it’s so not realistic and it undermines the gravity of the issues depicted), but also that Finch’s name was published in the school paper as one of the people most likely to commit suicide and no one, even of authority, bats an eye at this. There are so many obvious red flags that these two need help and none of the people here seem cognizant even when the signs are right there. It’s one thing when people genuinely don’t know someone’s having these kinds of issues or refuse to acknowledge them, but the depiction of the narrative draws these experiences out for dramatic purposes, which made me feel emotionally manipulated as certain turns of the narrative went onward.

I’ll admit I liked how realistic this book was with the depiction of Finch’s episodes. It got into the intricacies of his mannerisms, his highs, his lows, and it was so accurate to a tee in terms of how his behaviors mirrored someone suffering from bipolar disorder (and having met/known those in my life with this, I could identify). In a sense though, it felt like Finch’s experiences were being used as a tool for Violet’s development. In comparison, her grief and construction as a character was very pale compared to Finch’s. I felt like I should feel more for her with the loss and absence of her sister, but that grief just…never felt as pronounced or expanded upon. I also felt for Finch suffering under the hand of his controlling father, and the labels that were often thrown at him (whether he was “screwed-up,” “messed up” or the most frequently used word: “freak.”

Here’s where I come to a prominent problem with the narrative that reared its ugly head more often than not: the use of the term “freak.” While in some points, Finch notes that he’s not defined by the term “freak” (among other derogatory statements, including gay slurs) and that people use it as a label against him in notation of his behavior and issues, that notation is directly contradicted on many occasions when Violet and him use it in a positive light. So the narrative sends mixed messages. This is a similar issue to the use of nominative slurs and bullying dialogues when people try to use such terms as endearments, but yet the term never sheds its negative context. Since this measure was left standing on its own and never addressed in the narrative, the term “freak” (with its flippant frequency) was more often than not used as a way for both characters to define themselves and retain that negative self-image. Problem is that the repeated usage was overdone – to the point where it went past the point of showcasing their isolation and insecurities, and became a definition point for both characters, particularly for Finch since he’s never able to transcend this with respect to what happens in the story’s events.

This book doesn’t mask the fact that it’s a love story, and while there were moments of connection, I hated that it had to be framed so deeply in the root of their attempts at suicide/mental issues. MASSIVE SPOILER WARNING (+ expansion):

I feel like even after the events of the novel – Violet puts Finch on an inappropriate pedestal after he commits suicide. It’s a measure where it undermines both mental illness and suicide for the seriousness they have, compared to the damned love story here. On one hand, she’s trying to convey how much he meant to her in the time that they knew each other, but when there was a line where she said that she was closer to him than her own sister, alongside passages where she’s gloating about his label as a “freak”, I about threw the book down.

Further expansion: When Finch commits suicide, Violet overhears her parents talking about comparing Violet’s sister’s death (which was by a car accident that Violet has survivors guilt over) to Finch’s. She at one point in the novel criticizes their comparison of the deaths. But in the same vein, following Finch’s funeral, she undermines her own sister’s death by saying she was closer to Finch in their relationship than she’d ever been with her sister when she was living. To me, that was a comparison point that didn’t have to be made. It felt wrong, particularly since it seemed to place Finch’s death on a pedestal or even as a measure of comparison of relationships because of the purported love story.

NO! The fact that the book even went there for the comparison of losses made me rage immeasurably. You absolutely CANNOT make a comparison like that with human lives or their issues or treat mental illness like that. It’s severely undermining the seriousness they have.

So this narrative, on the whole, didn’t work for me. Despite moments where the emotional resonance came through, it was too often contradicted by mixed messages, stereotypes, and things that didn’t treat the teens’ experiences with as much sensitivity and seriousness as they could’ve had and needed. I sincerely hope that Niven explores alternative voicing and dials back on the humored flippancy in her next work, because this kind of pretentiousness and inaccurate depiction does more harm than good when it comes to serious discussions revolving around these kinds of topics.

Overall score: 1.5/5 stars.


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