Too many books and films do not bring up suicide in a way that’s helpful, so I was very cautious as I began All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven (Holding Up the Universe, Velva Jean Learns to Drive). Fortunately, while suicide was a fairly central theme, it focused on it in a constructive way that celebrates life. I’d say this book could be more accurately described as a love story or a coming-of-age tale, with all the hope, excitement, and revelations of both genres.
The story begins with two teens atop a belltower and follows them as they wrestle with feelings of grief and hopelessness, even as their friendship grows and changes. Okay, that makes it sound super grim and serious, but it’s really not. Theodore and Violet go gallivanting around the state together and have lots of fun amidst all the angst.
Theodore recreates himself a bunch of times, which was hilarious – I especially loved 70’s Finch. No wait, English Finch! His many personas revealed the depth of his inner turmoil while keeping the focus on his irrepressible, zany personality. Violet was great, too. We get to watch her develop more mature relationships and learn to let go of the death of her sister. She is so strong and wise. I loved spending time with these two.
But I think my favorite part of this story was Violet and Theodore’s ramblings. All the Bright Places is written from multiple perspectives, which I usually don’t like. Too often one of the voices is interesting and readable while the other is whiny and annoying. Oh what the hell, I’ll just say it. Too often the man’s voice is compelling, powerful and funny while the woman’s voice is shallow and helpless.
Not here, though! Theodore is fascinating, but Violet holds her own too. Niven did such a great job of helping me to get inside these character’s heads. This is one the few books that kept me interested throughout the internal monologs, and I think that’s because the main characters think in such a relatable way.
Violet wonders about stuff I used to wonder about. She analyzes things that happened in a way that genuinely helps me to understand her character more. At every turn she proved herself to be noble and strong despite the vulnerability we get to see through her stream of consciousness. What could have been a depressing story about a pair of mopey teens was instead a touching, honest story about dealing with trauma and figuring out what’s worth living for.
I had mixed feelings when I first picked up All The Bright Places. On one hand, I had heard comparisons to The Fault in Our Stars and been told the writing was decent. On the other hand, my school had just spent the last week trying to manage the impact that the suicide-focused series 13 Reasons Why could potentially have on our students. I don’t know if you’ve kept up with the debate, but here are the key messages: While it’s important to talk about suicide, it’s important to do it skillfully – In a way that validates those impacted by suicide but doesn’t perpetuate the noble, dramatic culture it sometimes takes on. Most importantly, if you’re feeling suicidal, you should seek help. You have the power to make your life one that’s worth living.
I was a bit concerned, at first, about Niven’s portrayal of some of her characters – particularly Theodore’s counselor and parents. You see, if all the adults in stories like these are portrayed as out-of-touch, fumbling nincompoops then that portrayal is going to stick. It might even make it more likely for those in a similar situation to Theodore or Violet to avoid talking to someone about their experiences.
But in All The Bright Places, the nincompoopery of these adults was presented with a generous dash of compassion and redemption that looked honestly at their shortcomings without totally writing them off. Best of all, at the end of the day, it was the young people themselves who took responsibility for their actions despite the ways they had been let down. It seemed to say – yes, adults aren’t perfect but don’t use that as an excuse to ruin your life. There’s hope for them as well as hope for you.
All the Bright Places did a great job of handling this tricky topic because it celebrates life. I loved that it managed to advocate for healthy relationships even while talking about the times they break down. I found it hopeful and beautiful as well as honest, and I’m glad I gave this gem a chance.