A couple of years ago I made a “bliss list” of 52 subjects that hook me into reading and enjoying a book: everything from community to eccentricity to Winston Churchill. Number 3 on that list was “insanity, mental illness, and mental differences and disabilities. Everything from schizophrenia to autism to deafness and blindness and how those affect perceptions and ideas.”
All the Bright Places certainly taps into that particular fascination, even though Finch, one of our two protagonists, doesn’t like labels and refuses to think of himself as bipolar or mentally ill. Finch refuses to be characterized by his illness, doesn’t believe that he is the “freak” that the other kids call him, but he definitely isn’t quite normal. He thinks about death and suicide nearly 24/7—until he meets Violet Markey at the top of the school bell tower where he talks her down from the ledge. Everyone else thinks it was Violet who talked Theodore Finch, the Freak, down from jumping off the bell tower, but Violet and Finch know the truth. And now Finch is fascinated with Violet, and vice-versa.
I liked the book, sort of. Ms. Niven did a good job of showing the quirky thought processes of boy who, whether he wants to be labeled or not, is dealing with serious mental illness. And I liked the way the book shows that Theo Finch is actually a real person, not defined by his mania or depression, but definitely becoming more and more enslaved to the sickness as the story progresses.
That said, I had issues with some of the plot and characterizations in this book. Theo’s family is a joke. His father is alternately abusive and absent, and his mother is . . . out of touch? She doesn’t feel like a real person. Theodore lives in a closet half the time, and his mother doesn’t do anything at all. He doesn’t sleep, and he goes out running at all hours of the day and night, and mom is oblivious. He disappears, and she still doesn’t do anything. Do these kind of people exist? Maybe, but I don’t get it.
Then there’s the financial aspect of the story. A lot of YA fiction seems to be written by people who are unaware or actively ignoring the financial realities of middle class life. Theo has a car (why?), but no job. I couldn’t see how he managed to pull twenty dollar bills out of his pocket to pay for books, or keep his car gassed up, or buy gallons and gallons of paint, or buy a huge bouquet of flowers for Violet. His dad didn’t seem like the type to chip in any funds, and Theo’s mom worked two part time jobs, one of them at a bookstore. Violet, too, has all the money she needs to eat out, travel around exploring Indiana with Theo, and do anything else she happens to want to do. Violet also has no job. And both Theo and Violet have the excruciating problem of simply deciding which university they want to attend, with no discussion or consideration of cost. This lack of financial limitations seems to be the case in a majority of YA novels. It only matters which university sends you an acceptance letter; money is no object for these basically middle class teens.
Lastly, All the Bright Places almost glamorizes suicide. Yes, we need to be sympathetic and offer help and not stigmatize those are mentally ill or those who are victims of their own suicidal thoughts. However, the other extreme is to make suicide look good, so cute and quirky. Theo is so creative and intelligent. He’s romantic, even in the throes of suicidal compulsions. He’s the only one who understands Violet. He manages to make his bipolar ravings sound like some kind of esoteric wisdom. SPOILER ALERT: Theo dies, but Violet halfway believes that “[p]eople like Theodore Finch don’t die. He’s just wandering.” At the end of the book, Violet writes an epitaph for Theo: “I was alive. I burned brightly. And then I died, but not really. Because someone like me, cannot, will not die like everyone else. I linger like the legends of the Blue Hole.”
I wanted to say, loudly, to whomever might read this book:
It hurts (you and other people).
You won’t linger like a legend.
At the end, you really do die.
Warnings: mild language, and of course, obligatory YA sex.