Tuesday, February 24, 2015

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

Since I finished Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, I've read about half a dozen books that I've started and put down, and just haven't been able to get into. Part of the problem was that, over the Christmas holidays, I sped read Camilla Lackberg's Swedish mystery series, and then read fantastic books by Marian Keyes and Liane Moriarty. I had a really great run of books. Now I've had a run of not so great books. Until Jennifer Niven's All the Bright Places

Jennifer Niven's All the Bright Places has been on my radar since I first heard about it in 2014. Slated with a 2015 publication date, I forgot about it until I saw it in my local Chapters over the weekend and read it practically in one sitting. 

All the Bright Places is a boy-girl perspective book, alternating between the viewpoints of high school seniors Finch and Violet. I love dual perspective books, especially Tom and Laura McNeal's Crooked, which is a standout YA title. Finch and Violet meet each other at the top of the bell tower at their high school, where Finch comments, "let's face it, we didn't come up here for the view." Both are standing on the edge, contemplating something, and eventually, they talk each other down. Finch, who's a bit of a social pariah, is not the right person to be caught with in the bell tower, and bystanders spin a story that places Violet as the hero who has stopped Finch from committing suicide. No one knows that she was up there first, and that Finch helped her back over the railing. Violet comments, 
Of all the people I could have "saved," Theodore Finch is the worst possible choice because he's a Bartlett legend. I don't know him that well, but I know of him. Everyone knows of him. Some people hate him because they think he's weird and he gets into fights and get kicked out of school and does what he wants. Some people worship him because he's weird and he gets into fights and gets kicked out of school and does what he wants. (22-23)
What happened in the bell tower bonds them together, and before Violet knows it, she's working with Finch on a history project about the wonders of their great state of Illinois. Together, Violet and Finch have to visit these so-called wonders and create something tangible to hand in at the end of the semester. The only problem is, quite a few of the wonders are far away. And Violet won't get into a car. And she certainly won't drive one. She's still reeling from the car accident that killed her sister Eleanor but left her alive. 

Together, Violet and Finch wander Illinois attempting to work at bettering themselves for each other, and to heal what's broken. 

All the Bright Places is one of the first YA novels I've read that throughly explores bipolar disorder and how it manifests, especially in teenagers. Mental illness is certainly explored in YA literature, specifically in books like Ned Vizzini's It's Kind of a Funny Story and Julie Halpern's Get Well Soon. But the depression and anxiety disorders most often explored in books for teens are joined by Niven's honest and heart-wrenching portrayal of a teen with undiagnosed bipolar disorder. All the Bright Places is a fantastic novel, and it's Niven's first for teenagers. She's an author who goes deep into the minds of her characters and isn't afraid to burrow there. The writing is excellent and yokes quotes from Virginia Woolf's novels into Facebook messages, post-it notes, and Violet and Finch's innermost thoughts. Reading and writing are also central to this novel, and readers can certainly trace the rich intertextuality from Victorian to Modern literature. Sex and sexuality are also handled with deft and transparency, and provide an authenticity sometimes missing from teen novels. I'm passing All the Bright Things on to the next reader, and am grateful that it yanked me out of my reading slump.