All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven // actually a pretty dark place

I’m going to have to skip my normal Like/Dislike review format for this one, guys. Mostly because I did not like a single thing about this book, but also because I’m having trouble organizing my thoughts into a neat little list. So let’s just chat a bit.

Let me start by saying this: the hype surrounding this book is real. I think most people have heard about this one. It won the 2015 Goodreads Choice Award for Young Adult Fiction, among multiple other awards. I’ve seen a lot of great reviews over it. It’s already set to be a movie. It’s kind of a big deal.

So maybe that swayed my judgment a little. If it was less of a big deal, maybe I would have been more forgiving. I’m not sure. But in summary, everyone else loves this book, and I did not like it at all.

And here are a few reasons why.

Goodreads Description:

The Fault in Our Stars meets Eleanor and Park in this exhilarating and heart-wrenching love story about a girl who learns to live from a boy who intends to die.
Soon to be a major motion picture starring Elle Fanning!
 
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.

This is an intense, gripping novel perfect for fans of Jay Asher, Rainbow Rowell, John Green, Gayle Forman, and Jenny Downham from a talented new voice in YA, Jennifer Niven.


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First: the setup. It’s obvious that this book tries really, really hard to be just like the best-selling YA books, especially those written by John Green (check out that Goodreads description if you don’t believe me). It resembles The Fault in Our Stars quite a lot, taking you on an emotional journey between two teenagers who love each other but are both facing difficult times. The problem is that TFiOS provides depth and purpose, while AtBP leaves you a bit broken and helpless.

It also resembles Looking for Alaska in some spots. The major thing that bothered me were the little countdowns at the start of the chapters. Finch’s is typically the number of days of “Awake” and Violet is number of days until graduation, but these countdowns are nowhere near consistent and are really only in the first half of the book. It seemed like the book was trying to mimic Looking for Alaska’s Before/After structure, but it did not make sense. In Looking for Alaska, it’s extremely effective, adding a bit of suspense but also giving you a timeline in which to place the events of the story. In AtBP, though, it was completely pointless.

It also had Paper Towns vibes here and there. Basically very John Green without actually being John Green.

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Second: the writing. I’ve read a lot of reviews that praise the writing in this book, but it felt really cliche and bland to me. There were maybe two lines that I thought, “Oh, that’s a good, quotable, original line.” But I felt like I had read literally everything else before, like the author took a stack of YA novels, cut sentences out of them, and pasted them together to get this (which would kinda be in line with what Finch’s sister does in the book, come to think of it).

I also did not like the switching first-person narration. I’ll admit that I prefer third person in general, but I especially think that third person would have been beneficial for this book. With first person, you get to learn a character’s personality pretty easily, but it takes away a lot of freedom from the reader. Third person allows the reader to critically analyze a character, and there is always parts that are left up to interpretation. This book used first person, but it didn’t do anything for the story. I still feel like I didn’t know who these characters were. If it accurately portrayed the mind of a mentally ill person, that would have been great. It didn’t, though. Third person, on the other hand, would have allowed the reader to fill in the gaps for himself/herself, while giving the character a realm of complexity. By giving us access to their thoughts, the author really limited who the characters were intellectually and creatively. Because there just wasn’t much there. The characters became their mental illnesses.

Also, the word “fuck” is censored through the beginning of the book and it was really stupid. About 100 pages or so in, Finch has this personal revelation and decides to use the actual word from there on, but the whole thing didn’t make any sense. I mean, it’s censored in his thoughts. Why would he censor his own thoughts?

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Third: the topic. This one is tough. It’s a book about two suicidal teenagers. Finch has bipolar disorder, and Violet is grieving her recently deceased sister. Now, I’m not against suicide being discussed in YA. I actually did a whole project in college about how discussing suicide in YA can actually be really beneficial. Not this book, though.

It’s a difficult topic and writers have to be really, really careful about how it’s presented. I think real problems should be presented realistically. But I also think that it is important to make sure teens know that help is out there, or at the very least, leave the readers with some sense of hope. Finch seeks help in a few different ways (he sees a counselor and attends a group for teens experiencing depression or suicidal thoughts) but he doesn’t take them seriously. And maybe that’s realistic, okay. Maybe it’s also realistic that his parents were oblivious to the problem. But he was very, very educated. I mean, he was practically obsessed with researching depression and suicide. But in the small section of the book where he discusses bipolar disorder, he kind of refuses to accept that that’s what he has, and it seemed really against his character. I don’t know. It just really bothered me how obsessed he was with researching ways to die and famous suicides. It seemed like a cheap novelization of what it’s really liked to be depressed. Depression does not equal obsession with suicide.

I know that was a long tangent and I’m having trouble getting my thoughts in order about it. The point is the way that suicide was treated in this book made me really, really uncomfortable. Maybe readers experience it differently based on their own life experiences. But to me, this book did not portray its topic in a way that was realistic or helpful for teenagers. I did not come away with anything.

Rating: 1/5 stars
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Let me know if you’ve read this book before, or if you’ve been planning to read it. What did you think about it? Did you think it handled its topic well? Did the writing style annoy you? Do you prefer first person or third person in YA? 

–Emily

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