Bringing characters to life: a review of ‘All the Bright Places’ by Jennifer Niven

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From the start, Niven had me gripped and falling into the world she created. The pages became an addiction, a rising hunger for each word that jumped off the pages. Starting with the two main characters on the school roof, ready to jump off, I was immediately pulled into this universe.

For me, there’s nothing two dimensional about the characters; the switching of narratives between Finch and Violets heads shows you just how their minds work. They become more than just words on the page. They stand in front of you as they come to life, words leaving their lips, hearing their laughs in high points and sobs when they hit lowest of lows.

Violet and Finch both have mental health issues. Violet is grieving and losing her will to live after she lost her sister in a car accident on a bridge (which she blames herself for heavily), falling further and further into her own self-hatred. Months on from the accident, she still doesn’t have the courage to get into a car, fear hitting her in waves. For the rules her and Finch put in for their ‘Wandering’ round to inspiring places in Indiana, Violet says to Finch that they must all be within distance of biking – to which he see’s as a challenge to get her into a car.

“Drive anywhere and everywhere, even when there’s nowhere to go. (Note: There’s always somewhere to go.)”- Jennifer Niven (All The Bright Places)

Theodore Finch isn’t the most mentally stable person by any means, showing signs of Bi-Polar disorder and experiencing manic and depressive episodes. One scene in the book, which translated amazingly well into the Netflix film, is when Finch is lying in the bath, dropping below the water level until he is submerged. He stays there until his lungs are burning for him to breathe where he bursts to the surface, gasping for air. He falls into isolation, causing Violet to have a growing feeling of concern. But it’s clear to the reader that those around Finch and are close to him brush it off as just his usual behaviour, showing a lack of support around him. His home life is incredibly disturbed, with his parents divorced and his father being abusive; it’s clear his depressive episodes are stemmed from his life experiences. The only support he gets is faintly from his school counsellor, who tries his best to support him but doesn’t reach out for further help for him. He lectures Finch on missing school, which, whilst others see as lazy, he truly can’t help it, or force himself out of bed or into the world where he’s meant to act ‘okay’ to everyone else. He finds life itself exhausting.

“I do my best thinking at night when everyone else is sleeping. No interruptions. No noise. I like the feeling of being awake when no one else is.” – Jennifer Niven (All The Bright Places)

Both of the characters hide their own troubles from the rest of the world, putting up their masks. Finch’s manic episodes provides him with a happy-go-lucky coverup to others at school, so he’s seen as the school weirdo, causing him to be the subject of bullying.

Honestly, the portrayal of Finch’s manic episodes is probably one of my favourite elements of the book, which I found disappointing when it wasn’t put into the film. He puts up a new persona each time he goes through one of the episodes, a ‘different Finch’, with my favourite being British Finch. He embraces the image of the school weirdo as a way to cope in my eyes, laughing along with everyone, up until the moment he flips in the book, punching one of the ‘popular kids’ who targets him.

People don’t like messy Violet Markey (All The Bright Places)

To me as a reader, these characters couldn’t be more different; their relationship both works and doesn’t. Although they balance each other well, I feel they aren’t good for each other in the slightest due to their combined mental illnesses. Finch is unreliable through no fault of his own, his isolation and bi-polar disorder causing him to push others away, and what Violet needs is that crutch of support which he isn’t able to provide her. Whilst he understands her, I feel there’s something missing in her understanding of him.

The lack of support for Finch is what leads him to the ending. If you haven’t read the book, I definitely recommend you stop reading here as this is major spoilers.

Finch kills himself. He reaches a low point after everything built up: his fathers abuse, the bullying at school, the fight, Violets parents blaming him for her staying out all night as she was with him. What strikes me is, although he clearly does want to die from his actions throughout the book, he leaves little clues to Violet which ultimately leads to the discovery of his body in a stream. When he first disappears, everyone assumes he’s just doing one of his disappearing acts, and he doesn’t immediately jump to killing himself. He visits the places he and Violet planned to go on their wanders, leaving a little sign to her a each, giving her something to look back on, a little thing to make her smile once he’s gone.

It was one of the most gripping books I’ve read, bringing the world to life, allowing you to feel everything the two main characters feel. Their connection, the experiences… they are real. It feels to me like this world has been brought to life in front of my eyes, each page taking me deeper and deeper in the story. The film was relatively decent, but I do feel like it was missing major elements that the book had. For me, it didn’t have the same power that the book had; every time I read the book, I end in tears. The film, I have to be totally absorbed into it to allow these emotions to fall over me.

Nothing will ever replace the feeling of the book in my hands, even the scent of the pages (as books do have a particular smell). It’s not an experience you can get from a film as you have the creative freedom to see the characters and the scenes in anyway that you want. I don’t even feel like a kindle gives the same feeling a book does – one reason I’ve never got one.

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