Mental illness and hope in “All the Bright Places”

In her debut Young Adult novel, Jennifer Niven writes, “People rarely bring flowers to a suicide.” Her treatment of the stigma around mental health and suicide is what rises All the Bright Places from the ranks of other teenage love stories. It’s the kind of book that anyone can relate to or take something from, regardless of their mental health. All the Bright Places is a beautifully written book that is, at times, very difficult to read.

Theodore Finch is fascinated by death, and he constantly thinks of ways he might kill himself. But each time, something good, no matter how small, stops him.

Violet Markey lives for the future, counting the days until graduation, when she can escape her Indiana town and her aching grief in the wake of her sister’s recent death.

When Finch and Violet meet on the ledge of the bell tower at school, it’s unclear who saves whom. And when they pair up on a project to discover the ‘natural wonders’ of their state, both Finch and Violet make more important discoveries: It’s only with Violet that Finch can be himself – a weird, funny, live-out-loud guy who’s not such a freak after all. And it’s only with Finch that Violet can forget to count away the days and start living them. But as Violet’s world grows, Finch’s begins to shrink.

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Both Violet and Finch are very well-written and developed characters, and it’s interesting to watch and see them evolve and to understand more of their personal histories. It’s poignant, slice-of-life stuff and the John Green comparisons are sure to pop up (even if I don’t completely agree with them). As a representation of how it feels to be depressed, Niven does a great job in All the Bright Places.

I think that anyone struggling with depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression or any other mental health issue including being suicidal can connect with the way Finch needed to find an active reason to stay alive, how he regularly pushed himself to physical exertion to feel life pumping through him, but still couldn’t stop himself from thinking about all the ways people have killed themselves. It’s a great illustration of the contradictions that can fill a person with depression.

When I first started reading All the Bright Places, I thought this was going to be a typical they-save-each other YA perspective — Finch’s behaviour helps to bring Violet out of her shell and appreciate life after her sister’s death, which follows the typical MPDG narrative, albeit with a manic pixie dream boy. From that perspective, it’s almost as if this aspect of mental illness is romanticised too, like Finch ultimately suffers but he provides a refreshing new world view to others who aren’t mentally ill.

But then the story doesn’t end happily. Finch never gets the help he needed, and he ends up committing suicide. Violet is crushed after his death, and nothing about it is painted as pretty or soft or romantic, from the “bloated” body to the way his parents sweep the suicide under the rug to Violet’s feelings of intense guilt and loss. It almost seems to tackle the entire “manic pixie” trope head on, with this idea that others don’t live to save us, and that, despite the pretentious lines and dark-cutesy “meeting on top of the bell tower” opening, there is nothing sweet about mental illness.

But what has become one of my favourite things about this story, is that the ending of the book doesn’t purely focus on Finch’s suicide and his illness, at least as I read it. But rather with Violet following a scavenger hunt that Finch left for her, and being reminded by this journey and the tokens he has left that she has to find the beauty in things, and live her life to the full. As Niven puts it, “it’s not what you take, it’s what you leave.”

After reading All the Bright Places, I didn’t feel as though the deeper meaning of the story was all about suicide and depression — as much as that is what it seems like — I thought that it was a more realistic take on mental illness that still wants to use it to impart a message of hope, regardless of the fact that that message came in part from the illness itself.

After all, Violet is suffering too, and she manages to deal with the overpowering grief: she learns to make friends again, to open up to her family, to find inspiration to write again after not being able to form a word for years, and most of all, to love again. Where Niven has given us Finch’s tragic and fatal story about mental illness and suicide, I fell she has also given her her readers hope and the belief that they can get better and move on with Violet’s story.

This book is beautifully written. Niven’s work is frankly masterful and I would recommend All the Bright Places to anyone in need of such a story.

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