This book poked all sorts of holes in my emotions. I did not think it was going that far. Even when it really was going that far, I thought “No, no, this isn’t real, this is one of those tricks of writing where the narrator makes assumptions and then turns out to be wrong and there is still hope.” But no. It goes far enough to make a definite impact.
About the book: Violet’s grief over the tragic death of her sister leads her to the top of her school’s bell tower–the perfect place to jump to her death and end the misery of being the one left behind. She’s not the only one up there, though. Theodore Finch, resident freak, is also standing on the edge, wondering if his preoccupation with suicide will lead him to follow through this time. Noticing each other, though, thwarts both their plans, and they talk each other down–this will not be the day for either of them to die. This strange meeting, though, prompts Finch to choose Violet as his partner on a geography project that will send them travelling all over their home state of Indiana. The two grow close; Violet becomes braver about moving on without her sister, and Finch finds feelings and experiences worth living for. But nothing will bring Violet’s sister back, or redeem Finch’s destructive family, so the struggle for meaning and happiness is a constant one that neither of them is guaranteed to win. No matter how much help might be available, the most important fight for survival is the internal one.
“We are all alone, trapped in these bodies and our own minds, and whatever company we have in this life is only fleeting and superficial.”
Best aspect: these are great characters that feel all the more real for their flaws. Readers may not be dealing with serious depression in reality, but Violet and Finch cover a lot of important topics about popularity and family and life that many readers can relate to in some way and may have difficulty talking about out loud. The great thing about fiction is that it can say things that you aren’t quite ready to talk about in real life, and it can connect people that way without ever making a sound.
“The great thing about this life of ours is that you can be someone different to everybody.”
On another note, I didn’t fully understand Finch’s “Awake” vs. “Asleep” dilemma. Much of his narration deals with wanting to feel present and alive, but other than small comments here and there the “asleep” state he fears is never fully explained. I kept expecting to see that more closely, but even when it seems like he’s on the edge of “asleep,” we’re only seeing him through his future reflections of that time, or through other characters’ perspectives. I wish the book would have started with Finch’s “asleep” state and shown him waking up before taking readers to the bell tower scene, because seeing Finch actually “asleep” might have made the threat of his losing “awake” more easily comprehensible to those of us who don’t share that experience.
“I did what I felt I could do. Could I have done more? Possibly. Yes. We can always do more. It’s a tough question to answer, and, ultimately, a pointless one to ask.”
A warning: if suicide or even the accidental death of a loved one are difficult topics for you to read, enter this story with caution. All the Bright Places hits some pretty hard emotions, and although it certainly doesn’t encourage or romanticize suicide or death, it examines both topics closely. There are some really tough perspectives and observations here.
“What a terrible feeling to love someone and not be able to help them.”
My least favorite aspect: there were times I didn’t like Finch. I feel bad admitting it, because overall I liked his character and I literally cried over how difficult and sad his life must be, but it bothered me that he ordered Violet around. There were times he spoke to her as though he knew what was best for her and she couldn’t possibly. I agreed with his ideas of helping her by convincing her to talk about her sister’s death, and encouraging her to get back in a car, and showing her to make the most of the time she has rather than hiding and counting down what’s left, but sometimes I thought he went about it in a way that seemed like he wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer; he wouldn’t listen or try to understand her point of view. He’s not the kind of guy who asks about things, he just does them. And sometimes that’s good. But sometimes it bothered me that he didn’t even pretend to ask.
Then again, no one seems to be asking Finch anything, either.
“It just feels like there’s no choice. Like it’s the most logical thing to do because what else is there? You think, ‘No one will even miss me. They won’t know I’m gone. The world will go on, and it won’t matter that I’m not here. Maybe it’s better if I was never here.’ “
My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This book surprised me. It surprised me so hard. Even at times when i felt like I had nothing concrete in common with the main characters, they made me feel like there must be a place where everyone belongs. Everyone must belong somewhere, because if these people can be understood and appreciated, so can anyone. I was expecting a romance in All the Bright Places, and, well–I found it, but it was the kind of romance that made my heart bleed. It felt real. And I love that. So I can’t wait to read Niven’s newest release, Holding Up the Universe. I have no idea what it’s about, and I’m not sure when exactly I’ll get around to it–I need time to heal from this one first–but I will definitely be checking it out.
- Much like Violet coping with her sister’s death, Faithful by Alice Hoffman features a girl named Shelby who’s best friend is killed in a car accident in which Shelby is driving in snow and breaks through a guardrail. Faithful focuses entirely on that loss and the main character’s methods of denial and moving forward. It’s also full of dogs. If you like a novel with a powerful message that’ll tug at your heartstrings, don’t miss this one. It’s adult fiction, but Shelby starts out in a very similar place to Violet, and explores more thoroughly the pain of being left behind.
- If you like reading about tragedy or trying to piece together the motivations of suicide (no judgment, I find both topics morbidly fascinating), check out Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why. This one’s been around for a while, and it’s soon to be a Netflix TV show, as well. It’s been years since I’ve read it, but I remember it feeling very powerful and I’ve been wanting to reread it for a while now. If you liked All the Bright Places, I definitely recommend this one.
- If the difficult romance fraught with modern real-life challenges is exactly the kind of relationship you’re looking for in YA contemporaries, check out Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park. This one’s less focused on death, but still filled with tragedy and hardship for two teens who seem to belong together despite everything standing in their way.
What’s next: I’ve just finished Siege and Storm, the second book in the Grisha trilogy, a series I started last month. I wasn’t planning to read this one now, but I needed an escape into a fantasy world to help me find the bright places again after Niven’s book. I live for fiction that feels like nonfiction, but it’s time to recharge. I’m sure returning to the Grishaverse to discover what happens next with the mysteriously evil Darkling will turn my mood right around.
Do you choose what to read next based on your mood? I usually pick my next read based on what I want my mood to be by the end, rather than where I am at the start. Is that weird?
The Literary Elephant