Book Review: All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

I’ll admit that when Niven and the Random House marketing team pitched this one at ALA annual last summer, I was skeptical. This was perhaps at the height of my annoyance at every contemporary YA as being pitched as “for fans of John Green and Rainbow Rowell.” But while I thought certain elements of the plot were contrived, I thought the writing and the voice of the characters, particularly Finn’s, were strong. Overall, I enjoyed this book and recommend it —with reservation— to readers looking for a teary story.

All the Bring Places by Jennifer Niven
Published: January 6th 2015 by Knopf Books for Young Readers/Random House
ISBN: 9780385755887
Source: ARC from publisher
Genre: young adult contemporary
Find: Amazon | Goodreads
SypnosisTheodore Finch is fascinated by death, and he constantly thinks of ways he might kill himself. But each time, something good, no matter how small, stops him.

Violet Markey lives for the future, counting the days until graduation, when she can escape her Indiana town and her aching grief in the wake of her sister’s recent death.

When Finch and Violet meet on the ledge of the bell tower at school, it’s unclear who saves whom. And when they pair up on a project to discover the “natural wonders” of their state, both Finch and Violet make more important discoveries: It’s only with Violet that Finch can be himself—a weird, funny, live-out-loud guy who’s not such a freak after all. And it’s only with Finch that Violet can forget to count away the days and start living them. But as Violet’s world grows, Finch’s begins to shrink.

This is an intense, gripping novel perfect for fans of Jay Asher, Rainbow Rowell, John Green, Gayle Forman, and Jenny Downham from a talented new voice in YA, Jennifer Niven.

All-the-Bright-Places-jkt

My thoughts: In romantic comedies, the meet cute is the set of circumstances that propel two characters together in an entertaining or amusing way. In a morbid twist on the meet cute, the couple in All the Bright Places meet at the top of the school’s bell tower, contemplating suicide.

For Finch, this is normal. He’s fascinated with death, and frequently researches ways to kill himself and collects quotes from writers who have committed suicide. But for Violet, it’s brought on by a grief and guilt. She was in a car accident with her sister earlier in the year, and while she survived, her sister didn’t.

By definition, a meet cute is contrived. And while I appreciate a bit of the macabre, this one stretched believability. But Finch steals the scene with his snarky gallows humor, so I kept reading.

Then, the two are thrown together on a geography assignment to explore their state. And this was almost enough for me to abandon the book, because I don’t buy that second semester seniors in high school would be taking geography, or that an assignment would entail driving across the state.

So, with these two strikes against it, I was prepared not to enjoy this book. But despite the forced and false-feeling way the characters were thrown together, I really enjoyed this book. And it was all because of the writing.

Finch is a layered, fully realized character whose voice was captivating. Niven manages to make him more than a caricature of a teen with mental illness, even as he tries on different personas as a coping mechanism. He was charming and witty and also hurting and struggling. His narration is guarded and also open and honest. Finch is a study in contrasts, which makes sense, as he is  manic depressive/bipolar.

Violet was less compelling, her voice less distinct. While I sympathized with her grief over losing her sister, and her withdrawal from her old friends and activities were understandable, her character relied more on stock attributes of a sad, popular girl, and details intended to add depth, such as her ability to pick locks, felt forced. The time she spent with Finch were more interesting than scenes she had on her own. The reader doesn’t see enough of her past with her sister to fully appreciate their relationship, and the subplot involving her blogging career seems underdeveloped. Additionally, the secondary characters were numerous, and completely underdeveloped.

While I didn’t find the set up for the “field trips” to explore Indiana believable, the adventures themselves were quirky and fun, and these scenes were enjoyable. From home-built roller coasters to a Bookmobile park, each step on their journey led Violet closer healing and Finch closer to self-destruction. Both characters change as a result of knowing one another.

I have great reservations about how Violet’s sexuality was portrayed, about the lack of adult involvement with Finch, the way his abusive father is never addressed, but these conversations verge on spoilers. Fiction can present problematic situations, but in fiction marketed towards young adults, I feel it’s important to address them as problematic in the narrative, and Niven doesn’t do so.

Ultimately, this novel is a captivating portrayal of mental illness. I recommend All the Bright Places even if I was not as swept away by the story as others may be.

Recommended for fans of: More in line with The Fault in Our Stars than Eleanor & Park — and for a more “under the radar” suggestion, check out Sway by Kat Spears (my review) or Heartbeat by Elizabeth Scott (my review).

Second opinions:

Happy Book Lover: “I also think it’s good that suicide and depression are being talked about in a realistic way. loved the way Niven approached the subject. It wasn’t romanticized or blown out of proportion, and the characters were so real and so true to high schoolers and people struggling with depression.”

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

  1. Interestingly the contrived nature of the meet cute was not among my (many) issues with this novel. I am still left wishing this novel were structured differently to better allow for some kind of “payoff” at the end with Violet coming into her own or other problems being addressed. Alas. Despite my misgivings this did seem like a solid read-a-like for TFIOS (I still don’t buy it as similar to Rowell). Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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