All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven – Book Review by Sarah Perlmutter
Violet Markey blames herself for her older sister’s death.
The two meet on the ledge of the bell tower at their school while Finch uses the thrill to feel alive and Violet contemplates jumping. When students see them in the tower, Finch helps Violet from the ledge, but his “freak” label makes the entire student body believe it was the other way around. Bound by their secret of what really happened in the bell tower, Finch convinces Violet to do their US Geography Wander Indiana project together, which takes both characters to places—physically and mentally—they would have never known without the other.
Young adult novel All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven has every ingredient for an engaging read: complex characters, relatable conflicts, and empowering messages.
At first glance, Theodore Finch may seem like the typical YA bad boy: enigmatic, dark, and clever. However, Niven’s use of a dual narrative structure allows readers to peel back Finch’s labels, and understand him beyond the limits of the archetype. Having been raised in a fractured and abusive home and bullied throughout childhood, Finch builds a wall of labels and mystery around himself, contrary to his sensitive and intelligent nature his close friends and family know. However his darkness keeps him from fully opening up to people, and as frustrating as it is for Violet, I too felt frustrated that I couldn’t break through his walls either. He is a real and complex character who could live off the page, and will continue to live in the memory of Niven’s readers long after they finish the book.
Violet Markey is an equally engaging and complex character who struggles between forgiving herself for the past and realizing who she will become in the future. Her growth throughout the book is most evident, and as a reader, I found myself really rooting for her to move past her fears and insecurities. After her sister dies in a car crash, Violet spends the next nine months struggling with survivor’s guilt, and unable to do what she loves most: writing. She struggles to shut down the web magazine she and her sister once maintained, and she continues to use her “extenuating circumstance” to get out of writing assignments. With Finch by her side, wandering with her through Indiana and guiding her out of her comfort zone, Violet finds ways of seeing the bright side of life and moving past her grief, finally returning to writing.
Though the primary conflicts in the novel are internal, some external conflicts the characters face may, unfortunately, feel familiar to readers. Finch has been abused by his father, who left his mom for another woman and her son, who may or may not be Finch’s half brother. Violet deals with societal pressures to behave a certain way at school. Both characters fight against being labeled by the rumors people spread at school. Perhaps the biggest issue facing both teens, however, is the looming topic of suicide. All the Bright Places is a novel I would recommend to all people, but especially those who have experienced a loss due to suicide. Readers will grapple with the subject as Niven leads them through the healing process with the utmost care. At no point did I feel any character was victimized or made into a villain for their choices. The narrative is fair and kind to all people, no matter their situation.
I feel this is an important novel for young people to read. The words reach from the page and let readers know they are not alone, others have felt what they have, and they survived too. The message that it’s not what you take in life but what you leave behind helps put all the bright things in ones life into perspective.
I rate this lovely book a 5 out of 5, and I recommend it to anyone of any age. It will melt your heart, make you laugh, and almost certainly make you cry. But I promise, every tear will be worth it.
Sarah Perlmutter is a young adult fiction writer and high school English teacher. She is a featured author on Wattpad, where her debut novel THE BLAST recently won a Watty Award for storytelling. When she is not reading and writing, Sarah enjoys spending time with her husband and cat, cooking food that is far too spicy, making arts and crafts, and teaching her amazing students.