What I'm Reading: All the Bright Places

Friday, January 23, 2015


I picked up All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven on a recent trip to the bookstore.  I hadn't heard anything about it, but I wanted a new YA book to read, and this one intrigued me.  It focuses on Violet and Finch, two high school seniors who are dealing with loss, grief, mental illness, depression,  hopelessness, and suicide.  Don't let that scare you off - there's a lot of heartfelt, touching, and even funny moments in this book, though it explores some very serious issues.  But I think that is part of its success, that it is able to capture so much of the teenage and human experience, all of its rich beauty and its heartbreaking pain.

I could probably nitpick and find things to complain about, but I'm not going to.  This book isn't perfect, but I was completely caught up in it.  There is an earnestness to Niven's portrayal of Violet and Finch that let's you know she has personally experienced some of what they are going through.  Her author's note explores this more fully, describing how mental illness, depression, and suicide have touched her life.  So yes, this book isn't perfect, but Niven makes an honest and ardent attempt to capture what it's like to live with mental illness, to feel the specter of hopelessness and worthlessness lurk in the deepest corners of your mind, to understand why people feel suicidal and how this impacts those around them.  And for that, I am in awe of what Niven is able to accomplish in All the Bright Places.

I hold mental health issues close to my heart because I have been personally affected by them in my life, and I'm constantly shocked by how misinformed, uneducated, and uncompassionate so many people are when it comes to very real emotional and mental health issues.  I think a lot of this stems from how mental health and illness are treated in art and by our culture and the media.  I can't even talk about Silver Linings Playbook without getting mad - it's such a reductive and frankly insulting portrayal of mental illness, one that seems to say that the key to recovery lies simply in finding a pretty girl who makes you dance.  It minimizes the difficulty of living every day with a diagnosed brain disorder and the hard work of making a recovery in favor of the usual romantic comedy fare.

But I digress.

All the Bright Places is an important book because it offers an earnest attempt to understand the difficulty of living with a mental illness and working through depression, and the book doesn't shy away from asking the hard questions.  This is particularly true when it comes to suicide, and the book does an excellent job of exploring both why someone would want to commit suicide and how this affects the people they leave behind.  I think in regard to the latter, All the Bright Places is particularly successful.  Even today, so much of the discussion around suicide focuses too much on the "selfishness" of the person who commits suicide, often reducing them to a coward who doesn't think about others.  Not only does this ignore the major and often untreated mental issues that motivate people to suicide, but it also leaves those who are left behind with no real way to mourn or process the loss of their loved one.  Niven's book shows how important it is to allow survivors of suicide to remember those they lost, to talk about them, the good and the bad, to put the word "suicide" out in the open rather than keep it hidden like a secret.  Suicide happens.  It affects people.  And we need to be talking about it, taking away the stigma of it so that we can better help people in the future.

Again, it isn't perfect, but in a world where most books don't talk about mental illness, depression, or suicide at all, or they offer overly simplified portrayals that don't really understand or cut to the heart of what it's like to be affected by these, All the Bright Places is a breath of fresh air.  It's moving, compassionate, tragic, and gorgeous, offering a rich look at the internal lives of two complicated individuals.  An important book about a subject more of us need to be talking about.

Five out of five stars. 

4 comments:

  1. I just saw this on Goodreads a couple of days ago - definitely adding it to my list now after reading your review! I have a feeling I'm going to be an emotional mess reading it, I'm sure. OH, and they're making it a movie, too? Dang.

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    1. Definitely keep a box of tissues close by - I was a mess, but it's so, so good! And I just heard about the movie! More tissues??

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  2. This sounds like a really great book. I particularly like what you say in your review "Don't let that scare you off." I know that I often avoid "heavier" books because I read primarily for entertainment, but in doing so I miss many meaningful and impactful stories and probably contribute to a culture that lauds the likes of Silver Linings Playbook, despite how problematic that movie really is. When I think about that movie, I always hear the soundtrack to wicked in the back of my head with Fiyero singing "Just Dance!" This to me highlights the frivolity of Silver Linings.

    On the other side of the spectrum, I am always impressed by books and/or movies that manage to tackle very serious topics without losing sight of the spectrum of human emotion. Even around difficult and sad topics there is humor and heartwarming moments that make up any life. I think it was Seth Rogen in an interview about the movie 50/50 who commented that making a sad movie about cancer is easy, but looking at the humor was hard and worth doing because it gives a fuller view of the life lived. It sounds like this book gives a full view.

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    1. Yes, this book is great at exploring some really heavy and serious topics but bringing a lot of humanity to them. Even in the darkest situations, there's often still laughter and light. I don't think this book is quite as funny as 50/50, but it's got so much heart.

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