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An authentic presentation of teenage angst and issues of mental illness.

All the Bright Places - Jennifer Niven

All The Bright Places, Jennifer Niven, narrators, Kirby Heyborne, Ariadne Meyers

I am not sure why this book has been labeled young adult. All readers, regardless of age, a parent, a counselor, a teacher, a coach or a student, could benefit from reading it. It is right on target about the way teens interact, with friends, with teachers, with parents and with those they consider to be less worthy than themselves. It deftly explores their mindsets and behavior, their relationships, their trials, their responsibilities, their failures, their insecurities, their dreams and their nightmares. This is an important novel because it exposes major, rising problems like bullying, depression, broken marriages and families, hopelessness, mental illness and suicide.

Theodore Finch and Violet Markey are the two main characters. Both are seniors in high school, both are extremely bright and although both are broken, one is more severely troubled than the other. Both should be planning their futures at college, but Violet is mourning the death of her sister and Theo (Finch) is trying not to “go away”. Violet is part of the popular crowd. She has wonderful parents, and receives sympathy from everyone. She is riddled with guilt about the accident that took her sister’s life but spared her. She doesn’t understand why she should be alive. She dreads school, graduation and what comes afterward. She has lost interest in her work, her boyfriend, her life as it used to be. Her parents, equally sad about their loss, are still actively involved with her care and with her counselor try to help her work through her guilt, but so far, they have not been that successful. She has learned how to give appropriate answers to their questions to keep them calm.
Finch is different. His father and mother are divorced. He yearns for a stable home life, but his mother, unhappy since the divorce, works and does not even pay attention to phone messages, let alone her son, so she is unaware of the depth of his problems. His sister does her best to protect him and does not relay the messages from school about absences and altercations. Only the counselor at school seems to recognize the depth of his problem. He is the one that has labeled Finch’s mental problem and that label appears to be a tipping point for Finch. He hates labels. He does not want another. He is already called “the freak”. He wants to be normal like everyone else and he is really trying, but he can’t lose the label. He wants to be accepted, to be happy, but sometimes he just has to keep moving and feel a rush and sometimes he simply has to stop and sleep until “he returns. Theo knows he is broken; he doesn’t believe he can be fixed. He often contemplates different ways of dying, even just from an intellectual vantage point. He really seems to want to live. No one seems concerned about him. It is just Theo being Theo.

One day, at school, by sheer coincidence, Finch and Violet both find themselves on the edge of the roof of the school’s bell tower. Finch talks Violet off the ledge and saves her, but when students notice them, he pretends that she has saved him. He is already labeled as “the freak”, no need for her to be labeled, as well. It is easier for everyone to believe that the popular girl would never consider jumping, while Theodore “freak” surely would. The popular kids, the bullies, ridicule him even further and Violet goes along with the charade. Then, in one of the classes that Violet and Theo share, Theo gets himself assigned to a project with her. At first, she doesn’t want to be seen with him, but soon, she finds there is a side of Finch that she likes. He is funny, thoughtful, mature, and smart. His ideas are spontaneous and imaginative. He makes everything they do a special event for her. He makes her happy. Soon they develop a deep friendship and then, they fall in love. Violet makes Theo happy too. The relationship that develops between them is tender and romantic, and one cannot read this story without identifying with their confusion, their pain, their joy, their sorrow and their love. Yes, it is true that Theodore Finch is different. He is mocked by the kids in school, but his differences are now exciting and inspiring to Violet. Theo sees beauty in so many places and he points them out to her. She begins to come out of her self-imposed shell, but Theo begins to withdraw into his. Can Violet save Theo from himself? Will their friendship help Violet?     

Theo represents children all over the world who are bright, imaginative, and talented who slip through the cracks because no one recognizes that they have an illness rather than a stigma to be hidden. They need help. Without the help, their brilliant, creative minds and talents are wasted. At the end of the novel, the hypocrisy of the adults and student body was hard to justify. Few took responsibility for their part in what took place and only expressed compassion when it was too late for it to do any good. Finch just wanted to be seen, just wanted a real friend, and he wanted the bullying to stop. He was blamed for reacting to it, while the bully walked away unscathed by the system. He couldn’t help his behavior, but the bully surely could. His relationship with Violet was not sanctioned by her friends, her family, or even by Violet, at first. She didn’t want anyone to see her with “the freak”, lest his reputation stain hers. Yet they became kindred spirits, each lifting the other to greater heights, until it wasn’t enough. Mental illness is so often hidden, not only by the person who suffers, but by family, friends and a society that either doesn’t want to deal with it or doesn’t know how.
There are several characters that the reader may want to strangle because of their sheer arrogance. Their superior attitude was infuriating, and yet, even as it was upsetting, it was also very real. The fact that Violet never told anyone but her parents the truth about Theo saving her life disturbed me. To save her own reputation, she tarnished his further and never really confessed. I understood why Finch did what he did; he was already accused of so much, but her reputation was pure. He had nothing to lose.

I thought it was interesting that the author chose the names Violet and Finch, a flower and a bird. Flowers attract birds and they are both, generally, things of beauty. Theodore tells the story of a bird, a bird that repeatedly searches for its home, a tree that is no longer there. It repeatedly slams into the door of his house until he finally dies from the impact. He wanted to rescue that bird, but ultimately, he realized he couldn’t. Theo also searches for a home, a family that is no longer there. He searches until his search ends as the bird’s does, unsuccessfully. Could no one save Finch? Was Finch the bird constantly and futilely searching?
Theodore’s mind never stops working. He is simply wired differently, he says, than others. At the heart of this book is the subject of mental illness and suicide, both topics that are neglected by society because they are not pretty subjects. The backdrop of the story includes quotes from Virginia Wolfe, another brilliant victim of mental illness who could not salvage herself no matter how hard she tried, who believed that she was the burden that had to be eliminated. The marriage of her quotes to the story enhanced its development.

The narrators did a good job, but at first, Violet was off-putting because she seemed to have a slight lisp. However, after awhile, the tenderness of her tone seemed appropriate for a teenager and it worked well.