After reading something like Slammerkin, I was really looking forward to something light. Something Sarah Dessen or Meg Cabot light. I thought I was getting that with All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven — hello, it has a pink blue and yellow cover — but instead I got a book about suicide.
Theodore Finch and Violet Markey meet for the first time atop their high school’s bell tower, both contemplating jumping to their deaths. This is not an unusual activity for Theodore Finch, a semi-violent, known “freak”, but it is certainly new for Violet, a well-liked girl in the popular crew who has not been the same since losing her sister in a car accident the previous year. Finch talks Violet out of jumping and in doing so talks himself out of it too, but he lets everyone at school think it was the other way around. Of course, Finch instantly develops an enormous crush on Violet, so he jumps at the chance to partner with her on a class assignment in which they have to visit unique attractions in the great state of Indiana. Violet is quite reluctant at first, but she gives in when Finch succeeds in getting her into a car for the first time since the accident that killed her sister. Soon enough she starts crushing on Finch right back, and an adventurous relationship that upsets almost everyone around them ensues.
I don’t think I can blame this on Niven’s writing, but how the kids in Violet and Finch’s high school treated Finch made me extremely uncomfortable and upset. It wasn’t “bullying” per se, or it wasn’t just bullying, but it was like, they all knew he had sort of tried to kill himself several times and teased him for it. TEASED HIM FOR HAVING SUICIDAL THOUGHTS AND TENDENCIES. That can’t really happen, right? Kids don’t really do that? They would be concerned about someone going through all that and would not purposely be mean to them, right? As the story goes on we learn that Finch has an estranged, abusive and likely bipolar father, whose traits have trickled down to Finch, but Finch refuses to acknowledge this and label himself or “get help” in the traditional sense. It takes Violet a long time, too long, to realize all of this is going on, but that’s mostly because Finch hides it from her and she is going through her own transformation/coping with her sister’s death. Eventually Finch runs away, and weeks later he is found dead at the bottom of the Blue Hole, one of the Indiana attractions he and Violet visited together during their assignment. Violet and her parents are devastated but also very angry at Finch’s mother and sister and friends, who didn’t do anything about Finch’s disappearance because it was fairly typical behavior for him. This made me angry, too; you try not to blame specific people for things like this, but some interference from Finch’s mother could have saved his life. Why didn’t she DO SOMETHING about her son who disappeared every now and then and had violent outbursts at school and basically acted exactly like his father, from whom she got a divorce for those exact reasons? His mother even went so far as to ask Violet to go to the Blue Hole and look for Finch, where they were both pretty sure he would be found dead, because she couldn’t handle it. I mean…!!?!?!???!
So this is a good book but a tough read. Very tough. There’s one specific part toward the end where Finch has an emotional/mental breakdown at school, and I had to physically put the book down because it was causing my own mini-breakdown. I don’t mean to imply that I have an illness similar to Finch’s, but I do have fairly high levels of stress and anxiety and all that fun stuff most of us humans have, and it’s extraordinarily unsettling to feel out of control of your own being.