All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I actually finished this book yesterday, but I needed some time to let myself recover. It was a very affecting and realistic portrayal of mental illness from two entirely different perspectives. I fell in love with this book, and it proceeded to break my heart into a thousand pieces - I spent at least half of it in tears (both happy and sad ones).
Niven created two complex and interesting characters who I wanted to read about. I did not necessarily like them both throughout the whole book, but I certainly wanted to know what happened next in their story. I appreciated Niven's respectful portrayal of both Finch and Violet's mental illnesses. Having known a few people in my life with bipolar disorder, I think the way Finch communicates is very realistic. And the way Violet describes going through the motions to satisfy people when she feels numb inside was very true to the experience of depression.
I loved the romantic aspects of this novel. It is so hard to find romance in YA novels that does not feel forced and fake these days. All the Bright Places really reminded me that when YA authors get romance right, they really get it right. We saw Violet and Finch in the early stages of their friendship, then as their feelings developed and eventually in their committed relationship - but Niven did not skip over any of these stages for convenience, she displayed them in all their raw glory. I truly felt that these two characters were in love. For this reason especially, the ending of this novel absolutely destroyed me.
The next two paragraphs contain SPOILERS - you have been warned!
Perhaps what I loved most about this novel is how it portrayed the two possible extremes of mental illness - death and recovery. Finch was clearly quite ill by the time we hear his story, and has an extremely damaging home life - and for this reason (as much is it hurt) I felt that committing suicide was true to his character. Violet, on the other hand, has only recently gotten a mental illness and has very supportive parents and (some) friends. For me, this really shows how our family and environment can facilitate or impair our recovery from mental illness.
The one thing that stopped me from giving this book 5 stars, however, was the nature of Violet's recovery. Although I think her eventual recovery is true to her character, I don't like that it portrays Finch as having 'cured' Violet of depression. I had this problem with My Heart and Other Black Holes as well. A supportive and loving partner can certainly help someone recover from mental illness, but they absolutely cannot cure depression.
Overall, this was a beautiful and poignant portrayal of mental illness. I wouldn't recommend this book to people who want novels that are all smiles and laughter, but I would recommend it to anyone who wants a novel about two genuinely interesting characters and how they overcome their struggles.
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