Summer Book Club: All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

So, the Book Project Blog Summer Book Club is underway and my contribution is with this offering by Jennifer Niven.

Niven wrote ‘I wanted to write something contemporary.  I wanted write something tough, hard, sad, but funny.’ (Acknowledgements).  For this reader, All the Bright Places achieved those goals and more.  A bit like candle wax melting, the story of Theodore and Violet slowly worked its way under my skin.  Then, like the impact of the candle’s scent, it enveloped me and drew me in so I just had to keep reading.  I read this on my Kindle until about 87% – the chapter entitled ‘Violet May 3’.  At this point, I had to take a break.  The words on the screen were blurred through my tears and I choked on the unjust reality of ‘the crying herd’ (p.340), who appeared only to assuage themselves of their guilty part.  I am reminded of my final piece for my Degree where I wrote a collection of poetry focussing on the Bystander and what it means.  Here, in this story, these teenagers are all guilty bystanders and this is poignantly captured in this chapter.

I did read to the end by the way and it was intense and sad and beautiful, but it also showed through its telling that you can be a survivor if you and/or those around you have the strength to choose it.

Broadly speaking this is a boy meets girl kind of story, but because it is YA fiction, a first for Niven, and because it focusses on real life and not the fairy tale, it is so much more than that.

Join Theodore and Violet and step into their world where two seemingly disparate people come together to create something truly remarkable that brings a joy and a peace that whilst fleeting, had, before they met, seemed truly elusive and unobtainable.  On the surface, Violet Markey is a popular high-school girl in the last year before graduation.  She has dated the most popular guy in school, Ryan Cross, and even though they have split up, he still only has eyes for her.  Theodore Finch is cast out from high school society by all but a few.  Coping with mental illness without any really beneficial support from any quarter, he has been labelled a ‘freak’.  Sometimes, he gives into and plays up to this label with his behaviour and choice of clothes and persona, but you soon become aware that at all times he detests the labels and just wants to be seen and accepted for who he is.

These two teens meet on the ledge of the Bell Tower.  Finch is testing out the experience to see if it’s the best option of suicide for him.  Violet suddenly ‘wakes’ to the realisation that she is on the ledge and becomes very frightened.  This is the point where their worlds collide.  Finch talks her down and as he stands there, the feeling of quiet descending on him, as he thinks ‘I am weightless and free.  Nothing and no one to fear, not even myself’ (p.8), Violet uses his own phrases to talk him down too.  The feeling passes for Finch and he lets himself be guided to the safety of the floor.  This one act of kindness from the girl from the ‘cheerleader popular’ (p.6), is enough to draw Finch into the world at large and so their journey, set to become all the more intertwined, begins.  By the end of the book, they and those around them are forever changed and I would like to think that the reader is too.  The discovery of self, dealing with teenage mental health and death is set against the backdrop of a school project where Finch and Violet wander Indiana choosing places to go that are ‘the grand, the small, the bizarre, the poetic, the beautiful, the ugly, the surprising.  Just like life.’ (p.43).

For me, this story resonated with the girl of my past.  I was never in the popular set, nor in the socially outcast, but in that big pool of grey in-between.  I experienced bullying for four out of the five years I was at high school and endured the labels, because compared to my life outside of school, I felt I could survive it.  Education was to be my ticket onward and upward.  To have gone through high school without the handful of friends I had would have been a mountain too arduous to climb without leaving some pretty big (and invisible) scars.

Now, as my son has just completed his first year at high school, I am reminded of the trials and tribulations children face outside of learning from teachers.  I am glad that teenage mental health is now more widely discussed in the public domain and searingly honest books like All the Bright Places help to shine a light into the ‘dark inside’ (p.350).

Yet again, the social realism of YA fiction is real, up close and in your face.  Niven tackles big themes of teenage life and it’s clear that remnants of her own life are wrapped up in the threads of the story of Finch and Violet.

Everyone seeks meaning and validation for their one trip on this earth.  For me, whatever it brings good or bad “Experience is Life”.

Add this book to whichever list you have, but make sure you read it.  I know you won’t be disappointed.  Don’t wait for the film, create your own vision of these characters and read the book first.

What would you write right now?  Fill in the blank.  “________________ is Life”.

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