Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Unpopular Opinion: All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

Note/warning: there will be spoilers in this review because I can't explain my thoughts without them. And the majority of the review is talking about mental illness and suicide.

All the Bright Places
by Jennifer Niven

Summary: 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. 
So... I kind of hated this book. A lot. But I want to make something clear before I get into the why's of that: I don't think it's a bad book, it was just a bad book for me personally. If you love it, that's fine, if your opinion is different to mine, that's fine too -- opinions are subjective. I guess I feel the need to clarify that because I've seen so much high praise for this book.

But... I hated it. And these are the reasons why:

I read a few reviews after reading the book, trying to see if I was alone in the bad reaction I had to it. I stumbled across a couple of reviews that basically said that this isn't a book for kids who have depression, it's for the kids who have friends with depression. And that -- that right there sums up the biggest problem I had with the book.

I've read books with mentally ill characters before, even ones where they do kill themselves. And I've even loved some of those books. But this one was different. It was different because most of those, we read from the perspective of someone other than the person who commits suicide and I think that's actually quite important.

When you write from the perspective of the mentally ill person, especially a fictional story (memoirs are different), it's important to remember hope. To remember that the person reading might be in the same position as your character, and they need hope. And this book didn't do that. There was hope for the one left behind, but not for the one who was suicidal.

It was chapter after chapter of depressive thoughts, page after page after page of suicide ideation, it didn't show any method of someone seeking professional help in a positive light. Then it ends with Finch killing himself. It's a bleak and hopeless ending for that manipulates the emotions of the reader and has people bawling as they read about how sad it all is.

But the saddest part is the people reading and relating to Finch, relating to those suicidal thoughts, and rather than it giving them hope? Rather than the message being "you can survive this" it's closer to validating all of those little voices in their head that they can't shake that tell them there's only one way out.

Had I read this during one of my low points, especially when I was a teen at my lowest, at that time where books were one of the few hopeful things I had left -- it would've been enough to push me over the edge. That sounds extreme, but when you're in that frame of mind, it's the little things that can set you off and the little things that can keep you going.

And that...that's not on Jennifer Niven. I understand that that is the absolute opposite of her intent in writing this book -- but it's just the truth. My truth at least, and the truth of a lot of mentally ill people that I know and many that I don't.

For someone who is depressed or has been depressed, I would never ever recommend this book to them. Maybe there would be some readers that would find some good in it, but because there's a big chance it could be detrimental, it's not worth the risk to me.

I thought it was a very trope-y portrayal of mental illness (specifically bipolar disorder) and I do think it romanticizes it. And it's not that it contains a romance, it's the way it's written:

Finch's illness is this Thing about him that makes him Other, makes him interesting and charismatic and unique (manic pixie dream boy, basically) -- and it's like that in his chapters too, not just Violet's. Then his death reduces him to just this boy whose purpose was to be a plot device in Violet's he was just meant to save her and love her and change her life, then his death was something for her to learn from.

It was like he never got to be more than his mental illness, and his mental illness wasn't handled very well. Which is sad because it's not like he was a badly written character in general, it's just that part (although his pretentiousness was irritating and his "you're not like other girls" attitude about Violet was even worse).

There were other things that bugged me about the book (the characters, both together and apart) but this review is long and negative enough as it is so I won't elaborate on those.

As for positives with the book: it was quite well written. Jennifer Niven is a good writer. My issue was purely with the subject matter and the way it was handled in this. If she ever writes a book that sounds good to me, and doesn't sound harmful or offensive, I'd probably check it out.

The tl;dr version of this is:

People who are suicidal or have been suicidal do not need to read someone else's suicidal thoughts (unless they get to see them come out the other side of it and live and be okay). They don't need to read someone being dismissive of therapy and medication or people calling them a freak. They don't need the climax of that persons story to be suicide -- especially when the impact their death is shown the way it was here (i.e. the people that bullied that person crying at their funeral, shrines to them set up at school...when you're in a suicidal state of mind, that image wouldn't deter you from acting on your thoughts, if anything it could be encouragement).

People who haven't been suicidal or depressed or had personal experience with mental illness...maybe there's something they could get out of this book. I don't know. I can't look at it through that lens. But for anyone that has, I don't think it'd be healthy or helpful to read (although people are free to judge for themselves, this is just why I personally wouldn't recommend it to someone mentally ill).

I'd rate the book 1 star out of 5. I actually think I could maybe like the movie adaptation (there is one currently in the works), because the problem was that Finch's POV was included in the book...the story, had we not been stuck in his head half the time, would've been much different for me (would've still had it's issues, just not quite so monumental).


p.s. and just in case anyone feels the need to point it out to me: yes, I do know the story behind how she got the idea for the book. Does not change my opinion at all -- authorial intent isn't always on the same page as what they actually end up writing or how it's interpreted by readers. Also, it's the reason this review focuses more on Finch rather than Violet.

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