All the Bright Places is the latest “big thing” in contemporary young adult fiction, following in the footsteps of The Fault in Our Stars and Eleanor & Park.
Like almost every highly-anticipated YA contemporary this year, it’s about mental illness and suicide: two teenagers meet on the ledge of their school bell-tower as they both contemplate jumping. Theodore Finch has just come back from a massive depressive episode and is fascinated with death. Violet Markey is still struggling to recover from her sister’s death in a car accident. They end up friends, and discover that, as the official summary says, “it’s only with Violet that Finch can be himself” and “it’s only with Finch that Violet… can start living.”
But set that ukelele soundtrack and life-affirming plotline out of your mind, because this book digs far deeper into mental illness than you might expect. It goes deep into Finch’s bipolar disorder, as well as exploring the crippling depression that Violet has felt as a result of her sister’s death.
And honestly, I can’t decide what I think about this novel’s treatment of mental illness. I’ve been left unsettled and angry after finishing it, and I can’t figure out whether that’s a good or a bad thing.
(Warning: major spoilers for the book)
First, a quick summary of how the book goes. Violet gets better. She deals with her grief, gains new friends, falls for Finch, finds a way to be creative after months unable to write a word, reconnects with her family and begins to think about her future. Finch, on the other hand, gets worse. A teacher suggests he has bipolar disorder, but Finch rejects the idea, and he ultimately kills himself. The final few chapters explore Violet’s reaction as she faces life without him.
Finch has been described as Violet’s Manic Pixie Dream Boy, and that is literally true. Finch is bipolar. He has manic episodes in the book, and most of the “great adventures” that he and Violet go on, most of their fantastic, romantic, see-things-in-a-new-light, seize the day moments, are driven almost entirely by mania. They happen because Finch aggrandizes, and is impulsive, and risk-taking, because his thoughts race and everything is big and dramatic and romantic to him.
And what does this say about the MPDG trope? Finch’s behavior helps to bring Violet out of her shell and appreciate life after her sister’s death, which follows the typical MPDG narrative, albeit with a manic pixie dream boy. From that perspective, it’s almost as if this aspect of mental illness is romanticized too, like Finch ultimately suffers but he provides a refreshing new world view to others who aren’t mentally ill. But then the story doesn’t end happily. Finch never gets help, and he ends up committing suicide. Violet is crushed after his death, and nothing about it is painted as pretty or soft or romantic, from the “bloated” body to the way his parents sweep the suicide under the rug to Violet’s feelings of intense guilt and loss. It almost seems to tackle the entire “manic pixie” trope head on, with this idea that others don’t live to save us, and that, despite the pretentious lines and dark-cutesy “meeting on top of the bell tower” opening, there is nothing sweet and Instagram-filtered-indie-movie about mental illness.
But then, things flip around again, because the book doesn’t end with a focus on Finch’s suicide and his illness, at least as I read it. It ends with Violet following a scavenger hunt that Finch left for her, and being reminded by this journey and the tokens he has left that she has to find the beauty in things, and live her life to the full, and all that stuff. Typical manic pixie dream cliches that he is indirectly passing on after death. So does this challenge those tropes and present a more realistic take on mental illness? Or is it a more realistic take on mental illness that still wants to use it to impart a message of hope and “seize the day,” regardless of the fact that that message came in part from the illness itself? The book doesn’t really grapple with the ways that Finch’s mania has both positive and negative effects, so in the end, its hard to tell.
But that, I think, is the biggest problem with this book. It doesn’t deal with Finch’s mental illness. Niven does a frankly stunning job of capturing Finch’s mood swings in her prose, pulling us along in the racing thoughts and the despair, and her depiction of mental illness is one of the most realistic-feeling I’ve come across in YA. It hurts to read. But it doesn’t feel resolved. Finch immediately rejects the label of bipolar because labels “explain people away as illnesses,” and he never receives any help beyond forced conversations with his school counsellor. There’s no treatment, no real help at all, and his suicide feels inevitable from about page 20. And we don’t get to see this final descent. Although most of the book alternates between Violet and Finch’s points of view, we don’t get any of Finch’s thoughts in the weeks leading up to his suicide. It becomes entirely Violet’s story — how Violet doesn’t know what’s happened to him, how Violet is angry, how Violet misses him, how Violet finds his body, how Violet responds afterwards. Considering how unafraid the book was to explore the dark places in Finch’s head before, it seems strange that it abandons his perspective weeks before his death, leaving another character to explain what being suicidal might feel like. This both makes Finch feel more like Violet’s Manic Pixie Dream Guy, with it all being about his impact on her story, and cheats us of emotional resolution to his story.
I understand that Niven wanted to tackle both mental illness and suicide in this novel, adding to the string of suicide-focussed YA coming out this year, and I also understand that suicide is a far too common outcome to these situations, especially when a person doesn’t receive any treatment. But the novel ends up with a very fatalistic tone. It opens with Finch contemplating suicide from a bell tower, and he dances with suicide throughout the book. He analyses every possible approach, swallows pills and throws them up, holds himself underwater until he almost drowns… and on and on and on. The message is very hopeless — Violet, who only suffers with grief, can move on and grow, but Finch dies. Illnesses are labels, and so they are bad. No treatment wanted, no treatment necessary. Just suffer until you give in. Perhaps Finch would have been less of a manic pixie dream boy if, in the end, he stabilized. Perhaps it would have been less romantic as a result. Perhaps Violet would have found that she loved Finch’s mania and didn’t love him when he was stable. Perhaps perhaps perhaps. And those are interesting plotlines to explore. But those possibilities are abandoned for the inevitable off-screen suicide instead, and although my edition of the book ended with a whole bunch of helplines and website links for mental illness, Finch’s attitude to labels lingers. Saying you have a mental illness is bad, because you’re a person, not an illness. Pills turn you into a zombie. It’s fight your way out, or die.
And are we supposed to challenge Finch’s view as we read? Are we supposed to come out of it seeing all the ways that he was mentally unwell, and the ways he should and could have been helped? It’s hard to get a grip on things, because we lose our grip on Finch in the narrative, several chapters before he dies. It all becomes about Violet.
This book is beautifully written. Niven’s work is frankly masterful. But I can’t help feel frustrated after reading it. I’m frustrated that we get the harmful and cliched moment where the guy tells the girl that he’s broken, and if she gets too close he’ll break her too, and she ignores the warning and kisses him and tells him that he would never hurt her. I’m frustrated because I ultimately can’t decide whether the book intends this as a sweet romance, or whether the ending is meant to show that you shouldn’t respond like that if guys say that to you, because they need help that you can’t possibly give. I’m frustrated because the Manic Pixie Dream Boy trope may have been subverted, or it may have been recreated. I’m frustrated because there’s such a fatalistic approach to Finch’s death, and I can’t decide whether the fatalism is written as an view on Finch’s illness, or as a critique of the society around him that does nothing to help.
And is this frustration a sign that the book was a success, or a failure? Was it a good treatment of mental illness, or a poor one? In the end, I really don’t know.