“I know life well enough to know you can’t count on things staying around or standing still, no matter how much you want them to. You can’t stop people from dying. You can’t stop them from going away. You can’t stop yourself from going away either. I know myself well enough to know that no one else can keep you awake or keep you from sleeping.”
I am not someone who is typically at a loss for words. After all, what I love most about books are the analysis and discussion that follows. But every now and then, I, along with all avid readers, am hit with the sudden pang of wordlessness, accompanied by the Aha! moment, “Yes. This is why I read books.” All The Bright Places by Jennifer Niven took that feeling to an unheard of level.
I’ll admit, I resisted buying this book for a few weeks for one reason: I have come to harbor an extreme dislike for YA suicide/depression novels. This is going to sound heartless and morally unsound, but just bear with me… I dislike YA suicide novels because the main character never actually does it. Never. No matter how severe the depression, or how grim the circumstances, somehow within the last few pages of the book the struggler is hit with this sudden realization that Life Is Beautiful and they smack the idea of suicide off the table so fast that all four legs nearly give out. Forgive me for not being an expert on the subject, but I don’t think that’s how depression realistically works. Yes, you can always change your mind about suicide, and I pray that those struggling do, but depression isn’t something that can suddenly vanish in a day’s time. It’s a journey, not a sprint, and I’m very tired of authors painting too hopeful of a picture and perhaps romanticizing it beyond its bounds.
Now, aside from the unrealism (and yes, I know this is probably going to sound bad, too), sometimes I feel that suicide in a story can actually better reinforce the book’s point that suicide is not the answer! There is a certain depth surrounding death in literature that can’t be reproduced by fake revelations that are not applicable to the parameters of a very real mental illness. Where I completely understand that a suicide in a young adult novel tends to break the mold because of its questions of morality, I can’t help but feel the way I do.
So you can believe how utterly refreshing it was to see a main character actually go through with it.
Theodore Finch… I dare you not to fall in love with him within the first chapter. A dark Ferris Bueller of sorts, Finch is witty, smart-mouthed, original, and depressed in the most heart shattering of ways. He, in my nonprofessional but observant opinion, embodies actual depression better than any character I’ve come across. Finch finds life beautiful; he finds it so breathtaking that he wants nothing more than to be able to experience it all, but he soon realizes he can’t escape what he knows is coming from the very beginning.
Violet Markey, Ultra-Violet Remarkey-able, grows on you in such an endearing way. In the beginning, I’ll admit I couldn’t stand her. I thought she seemed pretentious, and quite annoying, but that soon faded away as she and Finch intertwined so preciously to form such a clear picture of life and death. She is the part of Finch that he left behind in the world, which made him live on.
I won’t waste my time going on about plot—It was all crafted so well, from the wanderings, to Violet’s transition back into a functioning member of society, to Finch’s quirky mannerisms—because that’s not what gave me my Aha! moment. ATBP was a fresh, unique, and breathtaking story of teenage suicide that actually. made. a. point. Life is hard! It’s not something that can be changed overnight! And you know what? Sometimes it gets so hard that, unfortunately, teenagers choose death. Finch illustrates someone who folded under the pressure, while his departure holds Violet up straight enough to allow her to choose to live. Now that, I believe, reinforces the point that suicide is not the answers thousands of times better than if Finch reevaluated his life on page 370 of 378 and decided, “Hm, I think I can push my very real mental disorder to the side for the rest of my very long life with no effects and live everyday to the fullest.”
I praise Jennifer Niven so highly for finding a way to break the “Suicide Mold” of young adult fiction and craft a story that pushes the moral envelope without bursting it. I hope someday others can follow in her footsteps to realize that, while fiction may aim to allow readers to escape what they know as the norm, a healthy dose of realism is perhaps the more influential and beautiful option.