Book Review: All the Bright Places

“Finch spends his days plotting ways to die, and Violet spends hers plotting an escape from small-town Indiana. When their plotting leads them both to the ledge of the school’s bell tower, who saves whom is up for debate. When they come together again for a class project that will lead them on a tour of Indiana’s natural wonders, their relationship begins to grow. Finch feels more awake around Violet than anywhere else, and Violet begins learning to live from this boy obsessed with death.”

The editors tout it as a combination of Eleanor and Park and The Fault in Our Stars but a more appropriate comparison would be to Paper Towns and Thirteen Reasons Why. And, in my book, that’s so much better.

All the Bright Places sets the bar high for 2015, giving us characters who are more than their stock quirkiness. Though they certainly fall into the YA tropes of popular girl plus outcast guy, Niven has imbued her characters with nuances that make them feel true and tangible. Violet, the less relatable of the two, is still lovely and, while her simplicity (relative to Finch) makes her a bit of a canvas onto which readers can project themselves, she is far from two-dimensional (for clarification, see Bella Swan as Pants). Finch, meanwhile, jumps off every page as a vibrant, fearful, complex guy. He encapsulates that high school identity crisis by literally recreating himself on a regular basis. We see ’80s Finch, Rebel Finch, All-American Finch and more as he searches for the real Finch. The two complement each other perfectly and their alternating points of view offer two distinct, engaging voices.

Niven’s first YA novel grapples head-on with the tough stuff. She addresses mental health and depression in a way that neither glamorizes, sensationalizes, nor trivializes. Instead, her treatment of the subjects opens doors for conversation, offering inspiration and resources rather than judgments or labels.

The novel is an emotional read, for sure, and all the way through we feel as though we’re hurtling toward a less-than-happy ending. But Niven’s brilliant framework — the “Wander Indiana” school project — weaves joy and whimsy throughout.

Read it, share it, talk about it. And pray the rest of 2015 brings us YA lit that is just as entertaining, just as poignant, as All the Bright Places

P.S. Violet’s pet project in the novel is a webzine called Germ Magazine, offering thoughts on lit, love, and life. And, guess what? It really exists. Jennifer Niven brought the magazine to life along with her novel, and I only wish she’d done so about 10 years ago.