This post contains spoilers. Content Warning for self-harm.
The first of which is this: All the Bright Places a 2015 young adult novel by Jennifer Niven devastated me.
The second of which is this: self-harm plays prominently in the book, and I will be getting into more details on that in this review.
Still with me?
The story follows Violet, a high achieving popular girl, and Theodore Finch (who goes by Finch), the school “freak,” who appears to be a freak for no other reason than it’s a way to keep himself “awake.” I mean awake in a very similar way to being woke. Except, for Finch, who clearly suffers from depression, it’s his way of staving off depression by staying focused on the world, on being alive, and on the things that make him feel alive.
One of which, as it turns out, is Violet.
And Violet has her own problems. She survived a car crash that her older sister died. She is withdrawn from friends, and in many ways, from life. She and Finch begin the story on the top of the school bell tower, looking down — and Finch talks Violet off the ledge. Literally. And then credits her for talking him off the ledge.
When they are assigned to Wander Indiana, by one of their teachers, Finch chooses Violet. At first she’s reluctant and agrees to partner with him to keep him silent — to keep him from talking about her potential attempted suicide. But, they warm to each other in genuine ways and a friendship develops. Then a relationship.
In many ways, it comes as no surprise that these two gentle teens fall in love with each other.
But Finch, as much as he tries — and we see, time and again, his attempts to save himself — cannot keep depression at bay. He goes to the last places they decided to wander alone, and leaves clues for Violet in text messages he sends along the way, although Violet doesn’t understand this until after he’s dead.
In her mourning, she visits the last places they were supposed to wander together — a way to feel connected to him, a way to prove to herself that she can do this (the project, the driving, life) alone. The last place she visits, one of the places Finch chose on his own, she discovers a final clue. A suicide note, in the form of a song. You see, Finch was a singer-song writer. And he didn’t believe in writing down songs because “If a song’s meant to stay around, you carry it with you in your bones.”
When I finished this book, I wanted to start it again. And, also, I didn’t.
I’ve had conversations with friends about the choice of suicide. Those conversations have always had a way of devastating me, even though I have an intimate understanding of depression and “dark moods,” as Finch calls them.
Part of what makes this book so beautiful is that Niven steers from the sickeningly sweet or from moralizing. She operates under the assumption that suicide is, in fact, a choice and that sometimes there are mitigating factors that cause a person to hold out longer before making that choice, but she never blames Finch. And really, neither does Violet (if she goes through the whole Kubler-Ross stages of grief, it happens mostly off-stage).
Part of what I loved about this book is precisely that.
Youth — all of us, really — are moralized to enough, about so many things. Niven clearly understands that youth, like us adults, have feelings. She doesn’t suggest that what develops between Finch and Violet isn’t love or true. She doesn’t suggest that they shouldn’t have sex (and neither character is especially angsty about it either). She doesn’t suggest that either of their feelings of depression are just feelings they can “get over.”
Instead, she treats the characters with respect and patience and tenderness.
Perhaps because, as Niven states in the author’s note, “Several years ago, a boy I knew and loved killed himself. I was the one who discovered him. The experience was not something I wanted to talk about…for a long time, it was to painful to even think about, much less talk about, but it is important to talk about what happened.” The author’s note is followed by a list of resources.
Part of what makes this book realistic, at least to me, is that Violet and Finch largely don’t talk about their struggles with depression — except with each other. This is, unfortunately, very standard. Some other somewhat prominent reviews have accused adults in the books of being callous and not really caring about the kids, but this is part of what resonated with me and my experience.
We talk to the people we think will get it. The people we aren’t afraid to burden. The people who won’t look at us any differently.
We, like Finch, are afraid of the labels that might come with being un/officially diagnosed with depression, in a society which really does treat depression, and so many other forms of neurodivergence, as something that the person living with neurodivergence can just “overcome” with enough pluckiness/will-power/good deeds/prayer/fill-in-the-blank.
The thing about all of this is Niven understands that Violet and Finch can’t save each other. She understands that Violet, as the survivor, will blame herself. And she lets these things happen. She lets the characters unfold. She lets Finch, who cares deeply for Violet, continue to care for her in the ways that he can even when he is wandering Indiana from deep inside his own depression.
Because, often, that too is part of the human experience. We try not to hurt the ones we love, even when we know the decision we’re about to make will hurt them. Might change them forever.
She doesn’t portray Finch, or the choice of suicide, as selfish. In fact, she let’s Violet deal with this: “Before they can start in on Finch, and the selfishness of suicide, and the fact that he took his life when Eleanor had hers taken from her, when she didn’t get a say in the matter — such a wasteful, hateful, stupid thing to do — I ask to be excused…”
She lets Violet continue to love him.
She doesn’t let Violet get consumed by this loss.
These things are also part of the human experience.
These things are part of why this book broke my heart.