Part 2 of books about suicide week here at Angry Angel Books brings us to All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven. I did not want this book to end because I knew what was coming and I felt myself flinching away from the later chapters.
Our story begins with Theodore Finch in the bell tower of his school, and Violet Markey who finds herself there also and is talked off the ledge by Finch. (Sidenote – Every time I read her last name I read it as Malarkey instead of Markey, shout out to Joe Biden I love you please don’t leave.) Since Violet is the popular one, people assume that she talked “Theodore Freak” down and doesn’t get into trouble. Finch totally falls for her and we get the beginning of what seems like a typical YA romance in high school type book. They pair up for a Geography project which requires them to wander around to Indiana’s famous sites and away we go.
I knew immediately. The signs of manic depression/bipolar were too bright and clear to miss. Finch is just coming out of the depressive phase and is climbing into the mania phase when the book begins. A young reader might mistake this for the usual falling in love trope that you see in so many other YA books, but Jennifer Niven keeps it very real. Finch is able to distinguish between the asleep (depressive) and awake (manic) stages of his emotional and psychological status, but when his counselor suggests that he might have bipolar disorder, he rejects the idea and the help, not wanting to be labeled.
Violet is also a possible risk. After surviving a car accident in which her older sister was driving and was killed, she is struggling with letting go, with her guilt that she might have been responsible, and the reality of being a survivor which comes with its own questions and issues. Finch’s mania comes across as encouraging and exciting to her young eyes and he draws her out of her shell and brings her back out into the world. She is swept away by his unbounded enthusiasm for life.
This is an absolutely beautiful book, and the last section just tore me apart. I had to work very hard not to cry as Violet moves through the final wanderings that are required of the Geography project that she and Finch were partnered up on. I’ve mentioned books that would be excellent for teaching before, and Niven’s book must go on that list. I would not use it at the high school level though; I would want to use it in a college level psychology or education curriculum and ask students to describe the signs, suggest interventions, and highlight the risk factors that led to the ultimate result. This is labeled as YA fiction but it is instructive for all ages.
The end of the book provides a list of many places you can go to or call for information or help with mental illness or suicide, and Niven takes the time to emphasize that the person who is thinking about committing suicide isn’t always the only one that ultimately needs help. The survivors of suicide also require support. People who live with mental illness every day need support and we need to break down the stigma surrounding the discussion and labeling of mental illness so that people will not be afraid of asking for the help they need.
Please read this book. It is beautiful and heart-breaking and real, and while I do read to escape the world, sometimes it’s nice to read a book that is real life. We can experience something horrifying, terrifying, or sad in book setting so that maybe we are more prepared to recognize and deal with these kinds of issues when we meet them face to face.
If you think something is wrong, speak up.
You are not alone.
It is not your fault.
Help is out there.