All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

Photo of the book All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

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I’m the kind a reader that will put off reading a book until she sees a movie or a TV show coming out about it. I know, I know, not the right reason to read a book, but it’s an easy motivator for me since I’m pretty much staunchly in the camp of read it before you see it. In this case Netflix just recently released the movie adaptation with two of my favorite young actors. All of that added up to enough for me to finally motivate pick up All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven (which I’ve had on my iPad for almost 5 years). While this book started strong, it quickly veered into territory I wasn’t comfortable with, and felt a little too similar to some other popular YA books.

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 book is remarkably familiar to people who have read several YA tragic love stories. There are several really easy comparisons to draw here, mainly to 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, and Paper Towns by John Green. The similarities are uncanny and a little unsettling – it almost feels like this book just read the most popular tragic YA romances and mashed them together to create this book. Unfortunately, what this book didn’t copy from these books was the heart, soul and profound feelings that drive them.

Honestly, this book feels like somebody who was obsessed with John Green et al. and mashed a bunch of their books together to spit this one out. Let me lay out an example for you (spoiler alert): Finch decides to end his life, but before he does he leaves a trail of breadcrumbs across the state leading Violet to where he spent his last hours. This road trip on the hunt for one of the main characters was very reminiscent to Paper Towns by John Green. This is far from the only example of this book lifting major themes from other YA books. And that’s the crutch of the problem with this book – it lacks originality and because it’s so reminiscent of other iconic young adult books. This lack of originality really cheapens the book on the whole  – it focuses too much on fitting into a hot YA genre, that it misses one very important component – it’s missing the heart that makes these classic YA books unforgettable.

The root of my issue with this book is the way that mental illnesses are handled. Both Violet and Finch were going through their own respective health journeys, and at the beginning, I was impressed with how they were both moving forward and experiencing them. But as the book progressed, it became very clear that the author had not done adequate research into mental illnesses – it felt like she just read the WebMD articles and then wrote the book. The characters were almost wholly defined by their respective illnesses, and honestly I don’t feel it’s a true (or anywhere near accurate) representation of mental health. There was a real opportunity here for the book to explore the complexities of living with depression and survivors guilt, but the author wholly dropped the ball.

Violet and Finch’s characterization started strong but quickly deteriorated throughout the book. When the book begin, Violet was a fairly independent character going through an immense loss and was in a suicidal mindset. The book spent painstaking effort explaining what she was going through and how she was trying to cope with the loss, for the first couple of chapters. Finch is significantly less defined. We slowly get glimpses into his life, but the lack of backstory for him really did not help me feel empathetic for him as a character. As Violet slowly falls into the web of Finch’s friendship, she stagnates and pretty much loses all of her character definition and just becomes ‘the girl who misses her sister with survivors guilt’. It’s a shame to see her deteriorate in this way, and it really didn’t help with my emotional disengagement from the story. They just become an echo chamber of whose life is worse, and are entirely defined by their mental illnesses.

This book lacks originality and the emotion and spirit that drives the most successful books in this genre. All the Bright Places felt like a rushed manuscript trying to cash in on other books’ success before the YA tide turned to a different popular genre. It lacked the heart and soul of this books in its genre and, to me, misses the mark on the mental health issues it tackles. This book had a ton of potential, but it was wholly squandered. If you’re looking for something similar, I’d highly recommend The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, Five Feet Apart by Rachael Lippincott, and Paper Towns by John Green. 2/5

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