All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven is a newer introduction (published in 2015) into the “damaged kids finding each other” pantheon of Young Adult classics. It falls in step with Looking for Alaska, The Fault in Our Stars, (really any John Green novel), Eleanor and Park, Perks of Being a Wallflower, We Were Liars, etc.
That may sound like I’m being reductive and implying that All the Bright Places is something of a knockoff, a story that fits perfectly into a pre-defined, played out, mold. Much like the “kid with powers in a boarding school” trope played itself out amazingly quickly in the wake of Harry Potter. That’s not what I’m saying. And even if it is, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I loved some of those novels that I listed. Looking for Alaska and Perks of Being a Wallflower are two of my favorite YA books and some of my biggest inspirations when I try to write coming of age, YA stories. If a book is like them, chances are I’d like it.
However, I will say that you should go into this book knowing what to expect. If you like that kind of story, which judging by the readership numbers and amount of awards this book won, a lot of people do, then you’ll probably enjoy this book. But it isn’t carving out a new niche. It isn’t doing something unique. It is playing into a trend. I’m not faulting it for that, it is what it is.
In All the Bright Places, Niven focuses on two teenagers, Finch and Violet. Finch has a troubled past with an abusive dad and a medley of undiagnosed mental illnesses, including a fascination with death and suicide. Violet survived a car accident that killed her sister. They meet on top of the tallest tower in school. You can guess what they’re doing up there.
The main thrust of the plot is focused around their budding relationship and them struggling with their own issues. A lot of the plot is focused around family troubles. Finch with his father and distant mother; Violet with her parents who seem to have moved on and won’t acknowledge the hurt in their lives. However, there is a semblance of an overarching plot structure based around a school project.
Violet and Finch are forced together to work on a project where they must “wander Indiana.” Finch, with his carefree, spontaneous attitude, takes the assignment to heart and they set out to find all of the bright places in Indiana. Although that can be called a plot, it feels more like a plot device. It works as a means to draw the characters together to focus on the actual plot: their relationship.
And that’s fine. In fact, I wouldn’t have expected anything less from a book like this. We know, as readers, that we’re picking this book up to read about two unlikely, misunderstood, and isolated teenagers falling in love. That’s what we got and I can’t complain about that. They didn’t need to have some grand narrative to work through. The plot is their relationship and their lives. I’m not mad at that.
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My biggest issue with All the Bright Places has nothing to do with the story Jennifer Niven told or how she told it. It has to do with the marketing.
In every blurb, in every endorsement, this is pitched as a “heart-wrenching” story or a “gut-punch.” The story literally starts with a suicidal kid standing on the ledge of a building. What am I supposed to think? Of course I know how this story is going to end from the very beginning. It didn’t detract from the overall book, since this was about the characters, but still. Come on, marketing team.
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The plot is not the draw of the books, it is the characters.
Violet, as a character, is an interesting take. She is someone struggling with survivor’s guilt and her parents somehow refusing to acknowledge the trauma. As that is something I haven’t experienced, I don’t know how accurate it is, but I empathized with Violet. I believed her emotions, I rooted for her. I thought she was complex and motivated. I loved this character.
Finch on the other hand… I know Finch is probably the stand out character in this book. People have to love him. He’s designed to be loved. He’s designed to be this poor, downtrodden, easy to pity child bursting with originality and life. He’s quirky and fun and seems to burn brighter than others in the city. Yet, he does it as a haunted, tortured, misunderstood, attractive, boy. Honestly, it was too much. In my opinion, Niven tried too hard with Finch. I didn’t find him believable at all. Niven did a good job at explaining his mental health struggles and how that related to his life, but aside from that I couldn’t follow him. The quirkiness and the randomness was too much. That might have more to do with me being outside of the age demographic, though.
Some of the side characters seemed one-note and unnecessary. I got confused a few times because some of the characters were so similar that I blended them in my mind (like most of Violet’s old friends and a few of her new ones). But then others were great, like Violet’s ex-boyfriend. I also loved the parents perspectives on the situations and seeing into their motivations and struggles.
All in all, the characters were good without being truly groundbreaking.
When I originally finished All the Bright Places, I loved it. It hit my emotions, I felt connected to the characters and their experiences, I loved the school project casting an overall theme and connecting everything. The treatment of mental health and how different it can make someone feel was truly important. I thought it was great.
Then, in the days after I finished, I cooled more and more on it. Originally, I thought Niven provided a fresh take on this type of YA story that I love, but the more I think about it, I don’t know that that’s the case.
Finch seemed like a less believable version of Alaska. The hook with chasing the Bright Places wasn’t as interesting as other connecting plot devices.
I don’t know. For some reason, this book doesn’t feel like it did anything to enhance these kinds of stories. I think it was a good addition, but it didn’t add anything unique, it didn’t subvert my expectations, it didn’t challenge the cliches. It fell in line. It wasn’t a refreshing, new take. So can I really rate it that hight?
I did enjoy this book. I liked reading it. But it wasn’t my favorite of this type and I don’t think it offered anything all that new or exciting. So I’d have to rate it average: 3 out of 5 stars.