Overall Rating: 4.5/5 star
Quality of Prose: 4/5 stars
Quality of Story: 4/5 stars
Quality of Characters: 5/5 stars
Ability to Make the Audience Think/Feel Differently: 5/5 stars
How Long It took Me To Finish: 4 days
A 1 Sentence Summary
A teenaged boy obsessed with suicide and a teenaged girl grieving the loss of her sister fall in love.
My Favorite Quotes
“Let’s go. Let’s count for something. Let’s get off that ledge.”
“You make me love you,
And that could be the greatest thing my heart was ever fit to do.”
What I Loved About It
For the first 200 pages or so, I thought All the Bright Places was one of those fun–but edgy–young adult love stories my students would probably love but that I, as an adult, thought lacked depth or poignancy or importance, though I did enjoy reading it. (This is how I felt about Everything, Everything or The Fault in Our Stars or Love Letters to the Dead.)
Boy was I wrong.
The last 125 pages or so pack quite the punch. In fact, they pack what you could probably call one of the biggest punches of my life. I’m still sporting an emotional black eye and a nasty book hangover. (My book hangovers typically include me being in a constant melancholic state where I listen to Coldplay’s “Gravity” on repeat and have a lot of thoughts that I can’t quite put into words. It’s pathetic and my husband laughs at me.)
**SPOILER ALERT** from here on forward. You have been warned.
Niven does such a good job of putting you inside the heads of the characters–the story is told on alternating chapters from both main characters’ points of view–that when Theodore Finch, the hero of the story, who you know from the very beginning is struggling with depression and bipolar disorder and suicidal thoughts but who wants so desperately to live, has gone missing, and his girlfriend, Violet Markey is worried and searching for him frantically, you are also so unbelievably frantic. And when she receives her suicide message from him and finds his body and realizes that he truly is gone, you also are crushed.
There’s a quote towards the end of the book that reads, “Suddenly I’m having one of those moments that you have after losing someone–when you feel as if you’ve been kicked in the stomach and all your breath is gone, and you might never get it back. I want to sit down on the dirty, littered ground right now and cry until I can’t cry anymore.” And the amazing thing about this book is Niven’s ability to make her audience feel exactly that. I wept when reading this book. I didn’t cry the way I did when I was 12 and reading a Nicholas Sparks book or even when Fred died in Deathly Hallows (though Fred’s death was definitely the worst of all the HP deaths for me). I truly wept. The way you do when you’ve actually lost something or someone and will never get them back. The loss of Theodore Finch hit me in a way no other book death has.
What My Students Can Learn From It
A large part of my grief over this book can be attributed to–like I said before–Niven’s unique ability to make her audience invested in the characters. But it’s also, I think, because Finch’s death is a suicide and therefore different than other book deaths, as suicides are typically treated differently than other deaths in real life as well.
With All the Bright Places, Niven set out to help her audience better understand people struggling with mental disorders or suicidal thoughts and the people those people leave behind when they go. And she certainly succeeds at that.
The grief readers feel at the end of this book is more than normal book-death-grief because the grief Survivors of Suicide (the people left behind by suicides, people like Violet Markey and Jennifer Niven herself) feel is more than normal grief. It’s tied up with disbelief and guilt and anger and feelings of betrayal and inadequacy and shock and the overwhelming desire to go back in time and fix this.
Like I said, I knew from the very beginning that this book could end the way it did, and I saw all of the signs throughout the whole book. And yet, like Violet, I was truly shocked and disappointed and grieved by Finch’s loss.
This book taught me valuable lessons about mental health disorders as well. Though I, of course, still can’t fully understand how people like Finch feel, Finch’s perspective throughout the book definitely helped me be more understanding and sympathetic and grieved by these disorders and the unfair stigma that surround them.
And it can teach our students these lessons too.
As a teacher in rural Kentucky, many of my students are judgmental and tactless when it comes to issues related to mental health, and I think this book could certainly help with that.
It doesn’t glorify suicide the way the 13 Reasons Why Netflix series does and it doesn’t portray it as so cut and dry like the 13 Reasons Why book does. Instead, it gives readers a glimpse into the life of someone who so desperately seeks to be ALIVE but who is sick and who ends up being a victim of suicide and the life of someone who is left behind by that person and hurt by the stigma that surrounds his death and overcome by the guilt and the pain of his loss.
It’s an important, ambiguous, moving, and heart-changing book. And that just so happens to be my favorite kind.