All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

All the Bright PlacesJennifer Niven’s novel All the Bright Places will be the novel I recommend to anyone desperately in need of the feels. Its subject is not without its controversy and emotionally hard to process, but Places is beautiful and finds the extraordinary in everyday places (and being a Midwestern native who knows our hills are more like lumps—I should know.) It makes us reexamine our current criteria of living, if we’re really ‘awake’ or just going through the motions. Violet and Finch meet on the ledge of a bell tower for similar reasons with different purposes. The novel examines two young adults both caught up in their own struggles. While Finch is obsessed with death, Violet is just looking for a way out. Although this sounds like the worst pairing, both of them rediscover passion and excitement, but even love is not enough to keep someone going. Places is a reminder that amid loss and death, people somehow solider on.

Before I continue, this post contains content on mental illness and suicide. Be advised. Also: SPOILERS.

Theodore Finch spots Violet Markey on the ledge of a bell tower the same day he’s tempting to jump off of it himself. He ends up talking himself out of jumping and keeps Violet from doing the same. From there, everyone believes Violet is a hero for saving Freaky Finch: mercurial, manic, a new guy every week. Former cheerleader Violet is the opposite of him or at least she was before the accident that killed her older sister. Violet has been left stranded in what she calls ‘extenuating circumstances,’ and just wants to get the hell out of Indiana. During a class assignment about discovering new places in Indiana, Finch volunteers to be Violet’s partner, giving the chance for them to grow closer and fall in love. Behind Finch’s tenacity is more than just persistence but an ominous, pervasive feeling tearing Finch down. Finch is quickly unraveling and despite everyone knowing about it, no one intervenes, and it’s too late.

Places  delivers a straightforward story about a girl and boy meeting and quickly falling in love. The opening passage quickly sets up the story within the first several passages by introducing Theodore Finch and his disturbing, dry sense of humor on suicide, exemplified by his conveyance of the pros and cons of death via jumping off a building. The narration switches over to Violet Markey, who’s sensible and less enthusiastic about flinging herself off a building than her counterpart; however, she anchors the story whereas Theodore adds comedic relief to a bleak storyline, thus, creating this complimenting effect. The changing narrations help the boy/girl plot, but, admittedly, still contains several tropes from the Teen Romance genre, which explains why it’s so often compared to The Fault in Our Stars (yes) and Eleanor and Park (just no.)  An eccentric boy appears in a girl’s life and changes her complete outlook on things, but in the case of Places, it’s not as one-sided. Each of these characters imprints something on the other, bestowing us with beautiful metaphors and nuggets of wisdom perfect for young adult.

The characterization in this novel sharply imagines teens dealing with real, complex problems and doesn’t exploit characters with mental illness. The crazy, flirtatious banter between Finch and Violet is irresistible, especially in part because of Finch’s compulsive behavior to deviate from the mundane and lighten the mood. Finch’s story is very much about trying to find something to complete him than it is about finding the perfect way to die, though this might just be one of the many caveats of the story. He’s surprisingly hyper sensitive of what people think of him while being incredibly resilient to his peers’ castigation. When the manic episodes dominant his waking hours, his character begins shriveling. The reduction of this larger-than-life character painfully illustrates Finch losing his agency and the underbelly of mental illness, showing us how he departs gradually, boxing himself into smaller spaces until he’s gone. Niven carefully describes Finch and his descent. She distinguishes the two by showing off the intrepid Finch and when he’s lost control. The distinction reminds us of how mental illness is just a condition and doesn’t subsume a person’s identity.

Violet, although is burdened by her previous life and does everything to break away from the past, is characterized as a normal girl. With a character like Finch, it’s easy to overlook Violet. Her story appears minor but contains its own interesting problems. Like Finch, she’s in the public eye but with everyone’s attention trained on her. She is loved, so everyone panders to her circumstances because they know she’s still grieving. She even has supportive parents who are also grieving. She has so many people trying to be there for her but no one that’s capable of helping her transition. Her people are all super sensitive around her and trying to push her back to a place before the accident, but Violet starts to recognize that death isn’t the end but a trigger for change. When she suffers two devastating losses, the theme of the story is punctuated. She survives but is left behind and for someone to have to lose two people she loved in such a short amount of time, this leaves her with survivor’s guilt. Niven also thematically concentrates on the aftermath of loss and shows Violet piecing her life together and trying to make sense of Finch’s death. With Violet, her story isn’t about wanting to find an end but how to restart.

Places never lets go of the challenges of existing in the presence and valuing our lives. Finch, despite his fast-track spiral, was about the liveliest person because he lived each day like it was his last. And Violet wanted to save him—just like he did on top of that bell tower for her. Places does good work in breaking our hearts but doesn’t leave us broken. It reassembles all our parts leaving us with an important message: be there as much as you can. Love the people closest to you. Don’t live according to everyone else’s idea or for your family’s convenience. We’re born and then we die. Not to have lived even one moment is a waste.

Afterword:

Yes. I’m going to do the thing where I tell you things that you have heard on a bunch of public service announcements. If you feel suicidal, contact someone. I know. You don’t want to. You feel like a bother. No one can handle you. You’re too much. If you talk about it, then someone knows just how crazy you are. You’re worried what they’ll think afterwards or what they’ll do with you. Some might worry that person will take you home. Others might try and send you to a psychiatric facility. How do I know this? Three times I’ve tried (and obviously it didn’t stick) but there was someone to intervene—by sheer luck. I got lucky. Eventually I found out that I didn’t want to be lucky. I wanted to feel less lucky. I wanted to be in control.

There are resources available to you, and I get it: the last thing you want to do when you’re in this state is sparse through research or have to wonder about the cost of treatment, which is why reaching out before you reach critical is good. Talk. Cry. Talk. Ramble. I’m sure my SO would tell me my episodes were nonsensical and incoherent, but I felt better afterwards, and I’m very grateful that there’s a person in my life for that.

Tid Bit: Don’t wait fucking ten years to seek help like I did. We are complex creatures who need to converse awkwardly, sometimes in between sobs or through clenched teeth to find our doughy parts again. It’s better than feeling mean and hard.

So. There’s my public service announcement.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Ned Vizzini

Funny_Story_frontNed Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story hits home with many people suffering from Depression, suicide ideation, and the stigmatization of mental illness. It’s a relatable story and an eye-opener to the misinformed mass of people unbeknownst of the real, medically debilitating issues incurred through the disease. For Craig Gilner, he just wanted to get into the best school, go to the best college, get the best job, find the perfect wife, and have kids. Simple. In spite of its difficult subject, It’s Kind of a Funny Story is funny and poignant. It’s one of the more honest novels I’ve read on teenagers with mental illness.

Craig Gilner knows exactly what he wants from life: success. When he’s accepted into the Executive Pre-Professional High School, he’s beyond elated and can’t wait to start and begin on the path to a good life; his year of intense studying has paid off. At his new school, however, he’s struggling academically. The pressure to succeed overwhelms him so much that he can’t eat or sleep anymore. After a while, he decides he’s going to kill himself, which eventually leads him to checking himself into a psychiatric ward.  He’s then required to stay at the hospital for five days meeting an eclectic group of people. During his time there, Craig is able to confront the source of his Depression and Anxiety and discovers more than he expected.

Story is didactic and delightful for its plot structure. It forgoes chronology for the first half and instead plunges the reader in the middle of Craig’s hardship. Eventually the story resumes a linear order, but the story telling is truly one of the more interesting aspects; Vizzini’s treatment of the narrative ties to the novel’s strongest image, the brain map. The first half filled with flashbacks reverting back to the present is a pleasure to read with the symbols of the images bolstering the story’s meanings.

A tangible and sympathetic story, Vizzini’s novel is also kind of funny. There’s a mix of humor in the book peppered with hilarity and uncomfortable not-so-funny moments. Gilner’s suicide attempt is the last thing to joke about, the least funny bit of Story; yet, I can’t help but snicker when Gilner is calling the Suicide Hotline and is flooded with other callers, so he’s transferred to the hotline to pacify his anxiety until the Suicide Hotline is available. And it’s sort of funny when Gilner is conversing with the soldier voice in his head and has to explain with great care and difficulty that he’s not hearing voices—just this one soldier guy that’s him but isn’t him. Without the deadpan humor and eccentricities of the novel, Story would end up taking itself too seriously.

But Gilner is an austere protagonist. Reading about his struggles is like watching someone tunnel his way out of a prison with a teaspoon. He takes everything he does too seriously. Gilner’s view on life is simple and circumscribed, possibly causing what he sees as “tentacles.” When things are less stressful, more stabilized, he refers to them as “anchors.” We see Vizzini discussing emotional and difficult issues through powerful images and things the narrator Gilner identities with. These literary images are quite palpable and make me appreciate the novel and its characters more.

The other characters, albeit interesting, we never really know. This book is unquestionably about Gilner’s mental health and his recovery, so the other characters don’t receive the same amount of attention, thus, are not as fleshed out. What’s significant though is the commonality between these supporting characters that is antithetical to Gilner’s life. Most of them don’t have a support network, or they’re estranged from their family and friends. The severity of Gilner’s condition is offset by his propitious, loving environment of his family. While Gilner has experienced things that the majority of us may never be exposed to, he is still in a way sheltered from the worst.

I found Story scrupulous and almost methodical in its writing and language. Vizzini proportionately writes about the decline and recovery of Gilner’s mental health in an innocent, winsome voice that is easy to follow but exceptionally mature. What I’m mostly impressed with, as I’ve already praised repeatedly in this review and just have to gush about some more, is the images and symbolism deployed in the novel. Plot and characters are not the only pillars in this story. Without the use of the brain map, this story would be dangling—and a different cover.

And then there’s the conclusion of Story that cannot be summarized in one word or a sentence. It takes a page of constant, breathless prose to finish the novel, and it fills us with renewed purpose and perspective. It’s not the meaning of life, but it’s the thing we forget so easily. Somehow we go through the motions and forget that we are supposed to be living instead of being lead. It’s kind of funny how that happens.