Friday, April 3, 2015
"All the Bright Places": Suicide and other dangers of young love
The unlikely romance of Finch (also known as Theodore Freak) and Violet Markey begins when they meet on the bell tower of their school. Both are contemplating suicide for different reasons. Since the death of her older sister in a tragic car accident 9 months earlier, Violet who was once popular and vibrant with a promising writing career ahead of her, cannot move forward in her life. She can't get into a car, or shake the feeling that it's her fault that her sister died. Finch who is mercilessly bullied at school by the in crowd, struggles to regulate his bipolar system. Recovering from a recent bout of depression, his mania takes him to the ledge where he welcomes the spectacle of the on lookers below. It's only when Finch sees Violet's struggle and talks her down from the ledge that he finds a reason to live, but it's not exactly clear who saves who and for how long.
Their relationship solidified by fear, the prospect of death, and the heroism of being saved, develops even deeper when their teacher assigns a "get to know the culture in Indiana" project and Finch chooses Violet to be his partner in discovery. Violet who is reticent at first starts to fall for the unpredictable, poetic, charming, and dangerous Finch who quotes Virginia Wolfe and can recite "Oh, the Places You'll Go" and has musical talent AND has a quirky sense of style. Violet learns to let go of the past and start to live in the present, and Finch learns that life can feel good.
Yes, this book is charming, and yes, teenage girls will swoon over the the seductive and dangerous Finch who is a cross between Augustus in "The Fault in Our Stars" and Bender in the movie "The Breakfast Club." So much works in the book, that it's easy to overlook what doesn't work - like Jennifer Niven's heavy handed attempt to create a school world where Finch is less than acceptable (and somehow this doesn't make any sense since he is so very charming, kind hearted, intelligent and good looking). Although there is a quick explanation of how Roamer and Finch were once good friends until something happened, it doesn't support the continuance of the behavior. And speaking of heavy handedness - having suicide, bipolar disorder, a tragic accident, abuse, bullying, sex, a mean girl, neglect, and divorce all in one book made this book feel unnecessarily complex at times. The supporting characters from Finch's dad and step-brother to Amanda, the mean girl in school, to the too wonderful ex-boyfriend, Ryan, to the supportive friend, Brenda . . . all of them started to feel like too much.
Having said all of that, I still think that teenage girls will love this book and see the deeper side of it - the will to live vs. the will to die, and how depression is an illness that takes over people's lives even when things are good. (Just an FYI: The movie rights have already been purchased and Elle Fanning (from Malificent) is slated to play the role of Violet).
I appreciate Niven's attempt to create an edgier storyline in the same vein as Rainbow Rowell's "Eleanor & Park" and Jay Asher's "13 Reasons Why." Having witnessed the abrupt shifts that those with bi-polar disorder struggle with and how powerless loved ones feel in the wake of the mood hurricanes, I also appreciate Niven's focus on the dangers of this disease. Finch's first person narration on the depths of his depression and then his mania during what he calls "the awake" make it clear that balance does not exist without treatment for bi-polar disorder.
There's still a part of me that wanted this storyline to be a little bit cleaner - more of the discovery of the self while searching for the beauty in the unlikely landscape of Indiana, more about the love between two broken people who can help make each other better through shared pain and understanding and rediscover what living in the present is all about. Because I taught in high schools for 15 years, I sometimes wonder if those who are writing about high school romance, friendships, issues and enemies have taken the time to actually go into a high school and observe how things really are. Most students will tell you that authors and movie makers get it all wrong, that realistic fiction isn't really realistic at all, that although there is drama, it's rarely as horrible as it's depicted in movies, that their daily lives are so much more simplistic. What I do love about Niven is that she touches on the truth even if she stereotypes at other times. Her writing is good enough, though, to forgive the cliches and the oversights and the heavy handedness to create something that teens are sure to eat up like candy.