Tuesday, February 24, 2015

All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

"What if life could be this way? Only the happy parts, none of the terrible, not even the mildly unpleasant. What if we could just cut out the bad and keep the good?"

All The Bright Places is a story of two teens struggling to make sense of life through the lens of depression and suicide. It is a tragic tale with lessons for us all.

Two seventeen year olds, Theodore Finch and Violet Markey unexpectedly meet at the top of the bell tower at their school. They are not there for the view, but to commit suicide. Finch, a loner with few friends, is struggling with depression and the break up of his parents. It's the first week of the second semester of senior year and he's planning on ending his life.

When a student on the ground points, not at him, but at the girl standing on the ledge on the other side of the tower, Finch realizes he's not alone. On the other side of the tower is "Violet Something" who is "cheerleader popular" and not someone you would think would consider suicide.

Violet is trying to come to terms with the death of her older sister, Eleanor, in a car accident last year. She recognizes Theodore Finch and because she's beginning to panic,  allows him to move closer to her and help her off the ledge. She in turn helps Finch off the ledge. While other students such Gabe Romero (Roamer) taunt him to jump, Finch's best and only friend, Charlie Donahue, comes to the top of the tower to help him. Because Finch yelled his thanks to Violet for saving him, their classmates believe that it was Violet who saved Finch. In the aftermath of the tower incident, both are sent to the student counselors for help.

Mr. Embry, whom Finch refers to as Embryo, warns that if he tries something like this again he will be suspended and wants him to come in to talk twice per week. Finch missed five weeks of school near the end of last semester during what he refers to as the Asleep. His mother never knew, instead his sister Kate phoned the school and was the person Mr. Embry unknowingly spoke with. Violet meanwhile meets with Mrs. Marion Kresney who is concerned about the nightmares Violet has been having since the car accident. Mrs. Kresney is concerned because Violet has applied to a crazy assortment of colleges, except the one she most wanted to go to, NYU, where she was hoping to study creative writing. Although Violet filled out the application and wrote her essay she never submitted either.

Violet and her sister had a website, EleanorandViolet.com, that they started when they moved from California to Indiana. This website posted their views on different areas of life. With Eleanor's death, that website and Violet's desire to write have ended. Violet reveals to her counsellor that she has not driven again nor has she gotten into her parent's car. And she hasn't returned to cheerleading or student council. It's obvious she's not been coping well with her sister's death.

In their U.S. Geography, Finch impulsively (and to Violet's embarrassment) asks Mr. Black if he can partner with Violet for a class project to see three wonders of the state of Indiana. At first Violet doesn't want to be involved with Finch on this project. Finch however is very persistent. He comes over to her house one night and during a walk Violet tells him that she was considering suicide because of what happened to her sister and that she felt nothing mattered anymore. Finch tells her that living life to the fullest is important. Finch sends her his rules for "wandering" to see the wonders of Indiana. Violet agrees to do the project with him but insists that they walk or ride bikes and that they do not go far from Bartlett. Finch accepts this and their first "wandering" is to Hoosier Hill, eleven miles away.

Violet and Finch's friendship begins to grow slowly as they message one another on Facebook quoting passages from Virginia Woolf and Narnia. This blossoming friendship has the effect of causing Finch to want to stay in the Awake (a term he uses for staying alive) and he draws up a list of how to do this. And although her friends are shocked to see her spending time with Theodore Finch, resident "Freak" of Bartlett High School, Violet finds herself falling for him.

Even more importantly Finch helps Violet learn to live again. When he meets her parents one morning, he learns what she was like before the accident. So when Violet tries to bike to their next destination Finch confronts her about her fear of getting into a car again.
"The other Violet sounds fun and kind of badass...Now all I see is someone who's too afraid to get back out there. Everyone around you is going to give you a gentle push now and then, but never hard enough because they don't want to upset Poor Violet. You need shoving, not pushing....Otherwise you're going to stay up on the ledge you've made for yourself."
This pushes Violet into Finch's car (nicknamed the Little Bastard) and they drive to their next destination, the Bookmobile Park outside of Bartlett.

Although Finch tries to stay in the Awake his behaviour continues to be erratic. He misses his appointment with Embryo, fantasizes about hanging or poisoning himself and meets Violet to walk her to all her classes getting both of them detentions. One day he discovers his sister Decca cutting out all the "mean parts and bad words" from the books she has found around their home. Finch tries to cheer her up but wonders why she's doing this. Decca tells him that the bad words "trick you". Finch understands this because of the nasty article written about him in the school gossip magazine, Bartlett Dirt. "Better to keep the unhappy, mad, bad, unpleasant words separate, where you can watch them and make sure they don't surprise you when you're not expecting them." This seems to unsettle Finch further. He retreats to his bedroom where he begins taking down all his creative sticky notes and decides to repaint his bedroom from deep red and black to blue.

It is at this point that Finch and Violet start to take different paths. After several wanderings, which Violet has recorded in the notebook Finch gave her, she begins to rediscover the urge to write. Violet writes out possible story ideas and the beginnings of a new website. She takes a picture of the bulletin board in her room which is covered with the ideas and sends it to Finch but gets no response from him.

Finch however, begins to unravel. He misses a week of school unbeknownst to his mother, who never checks the answering machine and thus never learns about his absence. When he finally reappears at school, Finch leads Violet into trouble. Pulling a fire alarm to get her out of class, Finch takes her down to the river where he shows her a hooded crane, impulsively strips and goes swimming in the icy water and ends up in a fight with Roamer.

When Violet's parents learn of her skipping school and the fight at the river, they confront her. This leads Violet to tell them how she's feeling, that she has lost everything, her cheerleading, her student council, her boyfriend and her friends. "I wasn't acting out. That wasn't what it was...I don't have any friends or a boyfriend, because it's not like the rest of the world stops, you know?...Everyone goes on with their lives, and maybe I can't keep up. Maybe I don't want to." Her parents acknowledge her struggles and affirm what she is feeling. Her mother comes to her room, spending time with Violet to help her focus on setting up her new website. The result is that Violet has some concrete ideas, purchases her new website domain, www.germmagazine.com and decides that she will have contributors to her website. She also realizes that this is the first day she hasn't crossed out a day on her calendar. She throws out the calendar and puts Eleanor's glasses back in her sister's room - signalling that she is beginning to move on.

In contrast, Finch's family is clueless about what is going on with him. After the fight with Roamer at the river, Violet races to Finch's home to check on him but finds his sister Kate strangely ambivalent, "You never can tell what that boy's going to do." After Violet leaves, Finch who was in his room, knows he could go downstairs and tell his mother how he's feeling but her typical response will be to suggest Advil and to calm down. "...because in this house there's no such thing as being sick unless you can measure it with a thermometer under the tongue.Things fall into categories of black and white -- bad mood, bad temper, loses control, feels sad, feels blue." He tries to convince himself to live, "I will stay awake. I will not sleep." He even considers calling his school counselor but then doesn't. It turns out to be a fateful decision.

The next day Violet is stunned to see Finch at breakfast with her parents. Her father states that he has now set some rules for their geography project and asks for Finch's parent's contact information. Violet is upset at hearing Finch lie to her father about not having seen his dad for years and notices that even his handwriting is not the same as usual - a lie in her eyes. Finch also tells Violet's father that he's not sure what his plans are for the future because he doesn't know how long his life will be and he prefers to live as though he only has two day left. When Violet confronts Finch about his lies he tells her "Because it's not a lie if its how you feel." but this only angers Violet who wonders if he has been lying to her too.

Finch and Violet continue their wanderings through Indiana and as they do their relationship deepens and changes. At one stop at the Blue Hole, a round pool of water ringed by trees, Finch and Violet go swimming. The Blue Hole is reputed to be bottomless and capable of sucking a person down to their death. Finch stays underwater for so long that he terrifies Violet, who thinks he may have drowned. This intensely emotional incident leads them to become intimate, with Violet staying out all night and not telling her parents. When she returns in the morning with Finch, they are furious and tell her she cannot see Finch. Because Violet's parents were so worried they contacted Finch's mother, who in turn called his dad.

The repercussions from this situation set in motion a series of events that deepen Finch's depression and alienation. His behaviour becomes increasingly bizarre and impulsive. He assaults Roamer, gets expelled from school, overdoses on sleeping pills, begins giving away his possessions and moves into his bedroom closet. All without his family noticing. He also begins withdrawing from his relationship with Violet. When Amanda Monk tells Violet about Finch's attempt to kill himself, Violet begins to understand that Finch, the boy who has helped her recover her own will to live, is in more danger than she could ever have imagined. But is there enough time to save him from himself?


All The Bright Places was a very difficult read for me. For one thing reading about someone spiraling down into depression and suicide without anyone really noticing is intensely disturbing. Niven's story does a good job of portraying mental illness, of showing how getting the right support is so important and how mental illness is still very much stigmatized. All The Bright Places paints an accurate picture of how those suffering from mental illness can be passed over by family and even the closest of friends.

The novel is narrated by both Finch and Violet, so the reader gets to see what is going on in the minds of each. Both teens are dealing with difficult life situations; Finch's parents have split up and Violet has lost her older sister in a car crash. It gradually becomes apparent that Finch and Violet come from very different homes. Violet's parents are married and her mother is a college professor and writer who did her graduate work at NYU. Her father is an intelligent, caring man who engages Finch in an intelligent and meaningful way. They are concerned about Violet but allow her space to deal with her sister's death. In fact, they may even be over zealous in their attempts to help their daughter. When Violet returns home early from a party at Amanda Monk's home, her mother says, "Do you want to talk about anything? I know that must have been hard, and surprising. Why don't you hang out with us for a while?" Violet defines her parents as being perfect. "They are strong and brave and caring, and even though I know they must cry and get angry and maybe even throw things when they're alone, they rarely show it to me. Instead they encourage me to get out..."

In contrast Finch lives in a family shattered by divorce and has two parents who are self absorbed. Finch lives at home with his mother, Linda, his eighteen year old sister, Kate, and his eight year old sister Decca. His father, Ted Finch,who is a retired professional hockey player, has left Finch's mom and now lives in a new home with his younger wife and her son. Finch's father is a man with a powerful physical presence. He has an anger problem and is physically and emotionally abusive towards Finch and his mother. When Finch was eleven, his father broke his mother's chin and put her in hospital. A year later, Finch was assaulted. Finch was often told he was worthless and stupid. His mother holds down two jobs and according to Finch, has been "trying hard to be the cool parent." But she is also deeply suffering, telling Finch that she "never expected to be single at forty." Her way of coping is to drink wine at night and to routinely ask her kids what they learned each day.She tries to understand Finch's sadness and blames it on the divorce and his dad. With his father gone, Finch feels that everyone in the family is "running off in three different directions." His mother expects that Finch to be the "man of the house" not realizing that Finch is in crisis. He has only one friend at school and is often called "Freak", a name he was given after he asked a classmate to jump with him in front of a car to see if it would make the headaches he was having disappear.

The drastic differences in their family life, the level of involvement in their child's life make a significant difference in the outcomes for Finch and Violet. Unlike Violet, Finch has a history of mental illness which began when a cardinal died after repeatedly flying into his family's living room window. It was after this event that the dark moods began. All the warning signs and strange behaviours are simply written off by Finch's family as "That's just his thing. It's what he does." Sadly this means that Finch will never get the help he truly needs.

Niven also explores the wide reaching effect suicide has on those left behind. At school, Finch had few friends, was frequently bullied and called Freak. Violet is upset to see how her school responds to his death. Suddenly everyone seems to care about Finch. "...the entire school body seems to be in mourning. There is a lot of black being worn, and you can hear sniffling in every classroom." A shrine to Finch has been placed in the main hallway complete with notes stating how he is missed. This hypocrisy makes Violet angry. "I want to tear them all down and shred them up and put them in the pile with the rest of the bad, false words, because that's exactly where they belong."

Finch's counsellor, Mr. Embry tells Violet he feels responsible - to some extent but that he doesn't know what else he could have done. Embry tells Violet she is a survivor and that how well she does depends upon how copes emotional with what has happened. He gives her a resource to read to help her.

Violet, who was closest to Finch suffers intensely from his suicide. She feels anger at Finch leaving: "You can't do this to me. You were the one who lectured me about living. You were the one who said I had to get out and see what was right in front of me and make the most of it and not wish my time away...." Violet even hates Finch for dying. She also experiences guilt at her last words being to him being angry ones: "What would I have said to him if I'd known I would never see him again?" From the book Mr. Embry gives her Violet comes to understand that because of Finch's suicide she is "forever changed", something she must accept if life is to go on. Eventually in her letter to Finch, post suicide, Violet is able to express how he helped her and what she is feeling. Violet comes to some semblance of acceptance over what has happened when she completes the wanderings Finch undertook before his death and she finds a poignant letter he left for her.

As in life, Finch and Violet's families behave very differently after his death. While Violet's family believe that Finch's death was a suicide and that his family are partly to blame , Finch's mother and father are willingly to believe that his death was an accidental drowning. They are so disconnected from their own son they don't appear to comprehend the reality of what has happened.

Niven tackles some of the stigma surrounding mental illness and in particular suicide through the support group that both Finch and Amanda attend. Finch knows that people who have a mental illness are stigmatized in a way that people with other illnesses are not and he feels overwhelmed by it. "I want to get away from the stigma they all clearly feel just because they have an illness of the mind as opposed to, say, an illness of the lungs or blood." A girl in the group vocalizes how suicide survivors are treated due to this stigma. "My sister died of leukemia, and you should have seen the flowers and the sympathy.' She holds up her wrists,and even across the table I can see the scars. 'But when I nearly died, no flowers were sent, no casseroles were baked. I was selfish and crazy for wasting my life when my sister had hers taken away.' "  Later on when Violet tells Finch she wants to help him, Finch tells her "But I'm not a compilation of symptoms. Not a casualty of shitty parents and an even shittier chemical makeup. Not a problem. Not a diagnosis. Not an illness. Not something to be rescued. I'm a person."

Finch is the tragic character in this novel, suffering from mental illness and a dysfunctional family. Throughout the story he tells Violet numerous times why she should go on living, yet is unable to take his own advice. Instead he seems to consider himself to be irreparably broken. Although Finch could not save himself, in the end he does save Violet, at the bell tower and later on when she decides to continue to live even after his death. Violet is a complete contrast to Finch. She has a supportive family and no long last mental health issues. And while Violet could not save her sister nor Finch, she is able to save herself.

All The Bright Places is a haunting novel, filled with tragedy and loss but also hope.Niven writes at the back of her novel that she lost a boy she loved to suicide. Like Violet in her novel, she was the one who found him. Unable to speak much about her experience, Jennifer Niven decided to write about the experience in the form of this novel.

Suicide has touched my own life in an indirect but tangible way. My ex-husband's paternal grandmother (his father's mother) committed suicide supposedly over gambling debts. When I met and married my husband, the family reaction to her death was still one of derision and blame. There was still much shame, very little compassion and even hatred for her as she left behind a husband with debts to clear up. Sadly this poor woman is buried in an unmarked grave in a cemetery in Toronto, not worthy of a marker for her resting place. The repercussions of her suicide have spread down through the generations, negatively affecting her son, her grandson (my ex husband) and even to some extent my son and daughters as well as their extended family.

My eldest daughter had a direct experience with suicide in her senior year of high school. In a group of friends, one who showed none of the signs of being depressed or suicidal, decided to end her life two weeks before graduation. She drove to Niagara Falls, climbed over the railing on the Canadian side and went over the Falls. I cannot fathom a more horrible way to die. Those left behind were devastated. My daughter and her friends spent weeks trying to understand what had happened. They have no explanation. They have no answers.

All The Bright Places is slated to be made into a movie, starring Elle Channing. You can check out GermMagazine at www.germmagazine.com

Book Details:
All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
New York: Alfred A. Knopf     2015
378 pp.

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