In anticipation of an interview with the lovely Jennifer Niven, I am reposting the review to her amazing new book, All The Bright Places, which is getting much deserved love on the New York Times Best-Selling list. Congratulations, Jennifer!
There are books that capture you; there are books that make you dream; there are books that haunt you way after you turned the last page.
Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places is all three.
Theodore Finch is both full of life and obsessed with death. His ability to see beyond everything both gives him a unique, rich taste of life, and marks him as a “freak” at school, a lonely role to say the least. His fascination with death encourages him to constantly think of the different ways he might die – including by his own hand. Violet Markey is alive, but her beloved older sister is dead, making her eager to escape the little town she still lives in, nursing an aching, almost overwhelming grief. College is around the corner, but death might be another way to get away from it all.
The two meet on the ledge of their school’s bell tower; who saves who is a matter of discussion, but the gentlemanly Finch acts as if Violet is the one who saves him to protect a reputation which until now has been spotless. But caught in the maelstrom he glimpses in her eyes, Finch insists (a little forcefully, perhaps) to be teamed up with her for a class project in which students have to discover the various wonders of their home state.
And while they do discover many an interesting thing very close to home, Finch and Violet discover that they are able to help one another grow. Around her, Finch can be himself in all his weird, funny, loud, not-really-a-freak-after-all way. Around him, Violet stops counting the days to her escape from Indiana, and instead starts living again, even managing to pick up the pen she had discarded after her sister’s death.
While Violet is a beautiful character, it’s Finch that captured me from the moment I started reading the book. There was something both unique and yet so painfully familiar about the different-than-the-norm teenager, one that any reader who didn’t fit the mould in high school, even in the slightest, will relate to. The portrayal of a young man struggling to “fix” himself because of one of the oldest reasons in the book (i.e. a girl) is also painfully familiar to anyone who has had even the shadow of doubt as to their worth as a partner.
Jennifer Niven not only managed to come up with a beautiful tale, she also put it to paper beautifully, crafting it into a magical tale. The words flow seamlessly; we travel from Violet’s mind to Finch’s mind as if in the same breath; and everything the author chooses to share, be it about her characters or their environment, pushes the plot forward. Nary an extra word made it between the covers of this book, which makes the story thoroughly absorbing, one of those that you cannot put down.
While greatly entertaining, All the Bright Places is also profoundly enlightening. The portrayal of both characters and the path they each have to walk on to become their better self warms the soul, but can also tear one’s heart into pieces, while, funnily enough, leaving in its wake a certain warmth. This is probably because the story encapsulates, with sometimes brutal honesty, many profound concepts – the meaning of life, the meaning of love, the different kinds of love, grief, and child abuse to name a few – that are approached with a sense of hope for a better future.
Now I have to warn you that while I do not spell out any spoilers, you will probably guess the ending of the book by the time you finish reading this review. So if you do not like spoilers, skip the rest of this review except for the last paragraph.
What I appreciated the most was getting into Finch’s head. As Niven discusses in the “Author’s Note”, there is a lot of stigma associated with suicide. The blessing one has of not understanding why someone would commit suicide should not be translated into a lack of empathy for those who are intimately familiar with the feeling. With touching, honest books like All the Bright Places, we are welcomed into a world that many of us do not live in, but all of us should be familiar with. Because we are all part of a community where suicidal ideations and suicide attempts surround us.
As a writer myself, I also appreciated All the Bright Places because it’s the kind of book I would love to write. It both sweeps you away into a different world and expands your mind on an important topic which the reader gains a better appreciation for. Because of this increased understanding, readers will hopefully be better equipped to help a friend or a family member with suicidal ideation. The power that fiction has to both entertain and enlighten is the reason I write.
In her acknowledgements, the author discusses how she wrote this book as a way to channel the pain cause by two suicides that affected her directly. The first was that of her great-grandfather, the second that is someone she describes as a boy she loved whose body she discovered. This book seems to be her gift to these two people and to those around them who suffered as a consequence of their deaths.
A page turner that will capture you the moment you meet Finch, All the Bright Places will leave you with a broader understanding of what a person labelled as “freak” might be going through and how, perhaps, we might be able to help them by seeing them as people just like us trying to fill all the places in their life with light. Touching, beautiful, heartbreaking, and haunting, Finch and Violet will follow you around long after you have turned the last page of the book that brings them beautifully to life.
More information about Jennifer Niven is available on her website.
First published on Sahar’s Reviews in October 2014.