I'm ready now.
All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
Let me start off by reminding my lovely readers that I have a mental illness. I have lived through depression. And I have come very close to committing suicide in the past.
If you get nothing else from this review: This book is traumatizing. It is triggering. I'm not being an exaggerating fangirl; I am being tragically serious. This book is absolutely not recommendable.
If you're looking for books on mental illness, try something else. If you're looking for your next "John Green" book, look elsewhere. If the cover seems pretty and draws you in, remember that whole judging-by-covers thing and walk away.
I might seem harsh, especially as a fellow author. Usually I would be more understanding. In this case, I cannot do that in good conscience. I know I am biased, and I admit that. I stand by my point all the same.
Pretty much every bookworm/writer/friend who reads I know has loved this book and screamed recommendation from the rooftops. Including my favorite and most esteemed book reviewer of all time. So, this summer, I read it.
In the few negative reviews on GoodReads, I've seen a lot of similar complaints:
- The adults were blind to the characters' problems and didn't do anything when they should have. True... but that's how mental illness in children and teenagers is usually handled. It's frustrating as all get-out, and it needs to change, but right now, it's reality.
- This book is too John Green-ish. The plot involves two lovestruck, cutesy teenagers, the theme involves an overcast-y touch of death, and the writing is full of philosophical quotables. True... so if that's not your thing, this isn't your book. I happen to love that stuff.
- The cutesy, happy-go-lucky, colorful characters merged with their mental illnesses is a dangerous way to go. Similarly: the characters are just their mental illnesses. I think the characterization went beyond the mental illnesses, and I loved the characters, so I disagree with that point. The 'romanticization' of mental illness and suicide... well, I'll get to that later.
This book did have a lot of good. Actually, I loved the first 2/3 of this book. More than loved -- adored. Related. Squealed and flailed and grinned.
The characters are so real, so relatable. The writing is so beautiful. I was reading a library copy and was just dying to get my own so I could start highlighting. I felt like the author truly understood mental illness. As a college student in Indiana, I even loved the setting. I found a place in this book.
Violet and Finch are so completely shippable. Their adventures together are adorable and fun. It truly does remind the reader so completely of John Green. I kept forgetting it wasn't actually his book.
For the first 2/3 of this book, everything was perfect. I was in love. And then...
I've never thrown a book before. I'd heard of people doing that. I thought it was hyperbole.
I threw this book. I would've torn out the pages, too, except it was a library book.
These were not the emotions of a fangirl. These were the reactions of a very real, very hurt, and very very angry reader who knows what it's like to live with mental illness, knows what it's like to live under the dark cloud of death and suicide, knows what it's like to toe the edge of that cliff.
Finch committed suicide, and he succeeded.
There are ways an ending like that could have been handled well. It would've ended a very sad book, but it could've been a good one still.
Not so here.
This book romanticizes suicide. He kills himself, in a manner that is painted as morbidly poetic, and Violet finds the body.
Then this book takes Finch's death and uses it as a vehicle for Violet's character development. She's hurt and confused and wounded and grieving. Her emotions are valid and realistic. She begins to blame Finch for leaving her. She's angry at Finch for killing himself. She knew this boy, loved this boy, who was hurting and sick and fighting for survival. She saw his struggles and walked alongside him in his illness. And still she doesn't understand his suicide.
Suicide is not selfish. It is the last resort to end the pain. It is the last escape when life becomes unliveable.
She knew his pain, and when he died, she was angry at him anyway. That's a common reaction to suicide. It's understandable, from a survivor's standpoint.
But the book showed that reaction as right and okay. And it's not.
She goes on to finish their planned adventures. He left little notes and actions for her to do, a trail through his mysterious last days. It gives her closure, and she's finally able to move on from both her grief and her struggles as a character from before she met Finch.
It's supposed to be cute and heartbreaking and beautiful.
It's sickening. It's disturbing. It's wrong.
The author wrote this story to work through a personal experience of finding the body of a childhood friend who committed suicide. I'm a writer. I understand using personal experience in your work. I applaud the use of writing as a form of therapy and self-care and processing. But the ending is traumatizing and dangerous to those of us with mental illness and a complicated relationship to the realities of suicide.
We come looking for a book that shares our experiences. In this book, we find characters so like us. We have finally found characters to relate to, writing that truly understands and encapsulates our experiences. Those of us who have begun to lose hope start to think of Finch as our hero. Even in darkness as strong as his, he is fighting back and living in spite of his illness.
Then he commits suicide, and it's painfully obvious that from page one when Violet saves him this was inevitable. He never had any hope. He was never saved from the darkness. He never won his fight. He just put off death a little longer.
This book ends with quite possibly the most hopeless narrative you could offer a person struggling with mental illness and thoughts of suicide.
This book romanticizes suicide and makes mental illness out to be cute and endearing. It tells a story that offers hope, only to snatch that away in the end. We find a character who has escaped suicide and has a future, but it turns out he cannot escape the fate his illness has laid out for him.
A book like that is in no way acceptable.