Friday, January 16, 2015

Book Review: "All the Bright Places" by Jennifer Niven

I loathe when a book is touted as "the next [fill in title of bestseller]," or "as funny," or "as suspenseful" as another popular book. As I've said before, I believe that type of comparison cuts both ways—if you're a fan of the book that the new one is being compared to, it sets up unfair expectations, and if you're not a fan, you may skip a book that you might have really enjoyed.

Jennifer Niven's All the Bright Places is hailed as The Fault in Our Stars meets Eleanor and Park. Having absolutely fallen in love with both of those books, I couldn't resist reading Niven's, even though I knew that the comparison wasn't fair. But after reading Niven's book, I can say that it does share some commonalities with the other two books—namely characters who speak far more eruditely than real teenagers do, and the books' ability to leave me a puddle of emotion when they were done. And neither of those facts made me love All the Bright Places any less.

Violet Markey and Theodore Finch have one of the most unusual meet-cutes I've seen—they meet on the ledge of the bell tower at their Indiana high school. Violet is grieving after the tragic death of her older sister, and has shut the world out. Finch has been known as "the freak" for years, despite his good looks, snarky sense of humor, and intelligence. He's fascinated with different methods of suicide, and has contemplated it more than a few times, but something always stops him.

"I'm fighting to be here in this shitty, messed-up world. Standing on the ledge of the bell tower isn't about dying. It's about having control."

After Violet and Finch essentially save each other from possible death, Finch makes it his mission to save Violet from herself, and convince her to start living her life again, and allowing herself to enjoy things, and people, she used to. The two become partners on a class project called "Wander Indiana," where they are encouraged to visit some of the wonders of their state. But in doing so, they also discover that despite all of their challenges, they can truly be themselves when they're together, which both find truly cathartic.

As the two begin to acknowledge their feelings for each other, and Violet starts feeling comfortable again, Finch continues struggling with his own demons. As much as he tries to be present, to enjoy every moment they spend together, the weight of the feelings of others around him, the problems he's always dealt with, become too much to bear. Violet must make a crucial decision—does she try to save Finch as he saved her, or does she let him handle things on his own?

Niven does an excellent job in portraying the struggles of teenagers dealing with grief and mental illness, and while the obliviousness of those in Finch's life is appalling, this sort of "ignore it and it will go away" behavior is all too true. While as with many YA books published recently, the characters are far more articulate and intelligent and sarcastic than most teenagers really are, the dialogue was beautifully written, and I found the characters, Finch in particular, to be truly memorable.

Sure, this book is a little predictable, but I found it tremendously well done. I can't get it out of my head. I'm sad that I'm done with Finch and Violet, much as I felt after Hazel and Gus' story, and Eleanor and Park's story were done, too. This is a special book, and an important one.

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