Wednesday, January 7, 2015

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

Did you love The Fault in Our Stars and If I Stay? Then you will probably want to read Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places, which tackles another trendy topic – teen suicide. My junior year in high school, the president of student council killed himself at Valentine’s Day, so as a reader I am both attracted to and repelled by teen suicide books.

The book started slowly for me, as it seemed overly similar to other realistic fiction YA books like those I mentioned.  Freaky, weird, unpopular boy and pretty, popular girl with an issue. I had a bit of a hard time buying the initial “meet cute” (or not so cute) set up. He goes up on the school’s bell tower to think about dying, something he thinks about a lot. She doesn’t know why she goes up, she just finds herself there, numb from the death of her older sister in a car crash months before. He talks her down, but everyone in their high school of 2000 students thinks it’s the other way around. That she courageously and heroically saw him up there and persuaded him not to kill himself.

So Theodore Finch and Violet Markey slowly become friends, then boyfriend and girlfriend. Their U.S. Geography teacher asks them to work in pairs on a project, reporting on two or three “wonders of Indiana.” Finch manipulates Violet into agreeing to be his partner on the project, and much of their relationship is spent visiting strange and quirky curiosities in Indiana.

The giddiness of attraction between teenagers is well done, as is the aftermath of a tragedy that takes place late in the book. Some of the metaphors are labored – like the story of a cardinal who kept flying into the glass doors of Finch’s home until it killed him – but there is some nice imagery. The depiction of the parents and the other students is uneven. For example, Finch’s father is a caricature, but Violet’s mother has some depth.

The book is narrated in turn by Finch and Violet.  I found Finch much better developed than Violet, and liked his voice much better. Still, they are both flawed but appealing. The dialog between Finch and Violet is very smart and literate, but not over the top for the most part. Their internal narratives ring true most of the time.

“Like most people in the Midwest, Embryo doesn’t believe in humor, especially when it pertains to sensitive subjects,” thinks Finch (p. 19 of the advance reader copy), which isn’t true but is something a teenager might believe.

There is much in this book that teenagers will relate to. “One year later, I grew out of my clothes because, it turns out, growing fourteen inches in a summer is easy. It’s growing out of a label that’s hard, ” thinks Finch after being stuck with the label Theodore Freak. (p. 108)

“I reach for Violet because I’m not too steady on my feet and it’s a long way down if I fall. She wraps her arm around me like it’s second nature, and I lean into her and she leans into me until we make up one leaning person.” (p. 148) Who doesn’t wish for a relationship like that?

I predict this book will be very popular. I recommend it for lovers of realistic contemporary fiction that deals with issues and for readers who enjoy fiction set in Indiana. I read an advance reader copy provided by The book will be available in the young adult fiction section of the Galesburg Public Library soon.

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