Friday, May 6, 2016

Young Adult Fiction: All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

Jennifer Niven's All the Bright Places took home the award for Best Young Adult Fiction in the 2015 Goodreads Choice Awards.The book beat out Rainbow Rowell, a well-loved favorite among Goodreads users, so naturally I found the need to check it out.

The Situation: Theodore Finch is awake again and hopes to stay that way. But he has once again found himself at the top of the school bell tower, looking out at the scene below. At most schools, a lone teenager at the top of the bell tower would be cause for alarm, but at Finch's school, everyone sees this as Finch being Finch, again. What they do not expect, is to see Violet Markey up there with him. The story will read that Violet saved the unpredictable and erratic Finch from jumping, but they both know it was the other way around. What they do not know is that this will lead to one of the most important friendships - relationships - of their lives.

The Problem: Violet more or less has everything going for her: loving and attentive parents, popular friends, a fresh and pretty face, and up until recently, one of the hottest guys in school as her boyfriend. But the one thing that would bring Violet to the top of the school bell tower is the same reason she broke up with star athlete Ryan Cross. Violet's older sister, Eleanor, was tragically killed in a car accident a little less than a year before, and Violet still suffers from survivor's guilt. Meanwhile, Finch has a family that barely pays attention to him, is the direct opposite of popular, and while he does not receive any complaints because of his looks, people are not exactly clamoring to be around him. If anything, they do whatever necessary to pretend he is not there. But Finch has very little concern about how others feel about him, and is more concerned about staying awake. He does not want the darkness swallowing him again, which would most likely mean losing another few weeks of his life that he will never get back. And he believes he has found in Violet Markey the best reason for staying awake. He saved her life, but can she save his?

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel set in present day Indiana. Throughout the novel, Violet and Finch are working together on a project for US Geography in which they must visit places around the area. For Finch, it is not enough to look into the obvious tourist attractions, so he makes it a mission to look for sites most people would not think of, and he insists on visiting more than is required for the assignment. So the reader is taken on a tour of various offbeat places around Indiana, as well as a few obvious ones. As the book is written from the point of view of both Finch and Violet, switching between the two perspectives throughout the story - a device that has been used quite a bit in novels I have read recently (All the Birds in the Sky, Salt to the Sea, The Turner House, The Nightingale) - the reader will get the story from Violet's sorrow and grief-filled lense for one chapter, and then the next chapter will be from the often erratic and manic voice of Finch. Neither voice is difficult to follow for the reader, but it is interesting how the two can miscommunicate, sometimes intentionally, and what people will say despite what they are actually thinking. At first, both characters remain closed off and guarded, but as they slowly get to know each other and trust each other, they are able to share more of themselves, more than they have with anyone else in a long time. The book explores grief, mental illness, the stigma surrounding mental illness and suicide, bullying, adventures in and around your own hometown, and there is even a healthy dose of literature quotes that are tossed around among the characters.

My Verdict: In the beginning, it is hard to like either Finch or Violet. Finch can come off as somewhat arrogant, especially with the way he talks to teachers and other students. It is true that he is often bullied and treated unfairly, but his attitude does not do much to endear him to the reader. And while Violet may be in mourning, how she handles it, especially at school, can make her seem manipulative and like she is taking advantage of the situation. But as the book continues, it is clear that these are two people who are hurting and are trying their best, which can sometimes look like the worst. Thankfully, neither Violet nor Finch remains unlikeable for long, and somehow the pair is able to pull the best out of each other, leading to some sort of progress. Had I read this book before the voting began for the Goodreads Choice Awards, I most certainly would have voted for it. It is smart, funny, emotional, affecting, and just a really good book for anyone of any age.

Favorite Moment: There is a page with nothing but a drawing of a flower on it, and yet that picture says more than the whole rest of the book.

Favorite Character: I finally decided that Finch is my favorite, though Violet comes to be a close second.

Recommended Reading: I would recommend Jasmine Warga's My Heart and Other Black Holes, another book that deals will teens, depression, grief, and suicide.

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