Review: All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

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I went into All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven with my guard up. No matter how good or bad the book was, I knew a story about depression was likely to trigger my own. No surprise, it did. All the Bright Places is a beautifully written book that is, at times, very difficult to read.

I’d like to warn the reader up front that this review will have some pretty big spoilers.

ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES at GoodreadsAll the Bright Places is about two teens with depression. Violet’s sister died in a car accident the previous year and Violet blames herself for it. Finch has a long history of acting out and having sudden extreme mood swings. It is heavily implied that he is also bi-polar. At the start of the book both teens have suicidal thoughts, but Finch manages to talk Violet off of a ledge and Violet becomes Finch’s new reason for living. From there the story becomes about their budding romance as well as their personal growth. They learn about themselves and each other while exploring the hidden wonders of Indiana.

Violet and Finch are both very well-written and developed characters. It’s interesting to see them evolve and to understand more of their personal histories. It’s poignant, slice-of-life stuff and the John Green comparisons are sure to pop up. As a representation of how it feels to be depressed, All the Bright Places does a great job. I connected with the way Finch needed to find an active reason to stay alive, how he regularly pushed himself to physical exertion to feel life pumping through him, but still couldn’t stop himself from thinking about all the ways people have killed themselves. It’s a great illustration of the contradictions that can fill a person with depression.

However, now we come to the book’s greatest flaw: this is not a book for people with depression. I would absolutely not recommend it for anyone with depression who was looking for representation. The problem, and this is the big spoiler I mentioned, is that one of the protagonists kills himself. I was worried about this for the entire book. I kept flipping ahead and peaking at the last page, knowing what I saw and hoping I was wrong.

Of the two, Finch is the character with the more deep-rooted mental issues. It’s made clear through the book that he’s had suicidal thoughts for years, which hasn’t been made easier by years of bullying in school, an absent mother, and an abusive father. Being with Violet makes things better for a time, but as the book progresses I could see his dark thoughts coming back. In the end, he runs away from home and isn’t heard from for weeks. Finally Violet finds him, drowned in a lake where they’d had a date.

Suicide is a delicate topic to put in any story. Sometimes it’s used for sensationalism and sometimes it’s meant to illustrate poignant tragedy. In a book about depression though, it’s simply an essential element to discuss. Sadly, depression and suicide go together all too often in the real world. Unfortunately, Finch’s suicide is one that is handled poorly, ruining much of the book.

Once Finch dies, I feel that All the Bright Places really shows its true colors. I have seen this novel advertised as a story about teenage depression, but I don’t think that’s quite right. It’s a book for people with friends who commit suicide. The author admits at the end that it was an experience she went through herself and the last chunk of the story is all about Violet coping with losing Finch.

In his absence Finch goes from being an interesting, well-rounded character to a manic pixie dream-boy. Prior to killing himself he left all sort of special messages for Violet to find, final love letters to the wonder of their romance. During this section Violet doesn’t question what was going through Finch’s mind or the tragedy of suicide. Instead it’s all about finding the next whimsical message and ultimately giving Violet the strength to move on with her life.

It all left me incredibly sad and angry. Depression is a terrible illness that will regularly make a person believe the worst things about themself. It’s painful and it’s deadly and anyone with it knows that it’s daily struggle to find reasons to stay alive. Yes, there are wonderful people like Finch who lose that battle, but that isn’t the message that teens need to read about. What anyone with depression desperately needs is hope. We need to believe that we can get better, that we can get to a place somehow where we can function without that little voice saying “This would all be easier if you just died.” All the Bright Places does not leave the depressed reader with that hope. Instead it says, “If you die the right way, you can end up being an inspiration to others.”

The book also does an awful job of portraying the means to recovery for depression or any mental illness. In the fashion of any 90’s coming-of-age story, Violet and Finch both grow and evolve entirely through talking to each other, whimsical adventures, and abstract philosophy. While those things might help some people, things like therapy and medication are often essential. In All the Bright Places both standard treatment methods are shown in a very negative light. Therapists are well-meaning adults who don’t really understand at best, or at worst will put in minimal effort to try and get the depressed kid back in line. At one point Violet finds Finch living in his bedroom closet and suggests therapy to him, only to have him run away. That winds up being the last time she sees him. She partially blames herself for his death because she pushed him to seek help.

The only mention of medication comes when Finch drops in on a suicidal teens support group and sees several kids with “the dull, vacant look of people on drugs”. No one explains the benefits of antidepressants. Instead any hint of medical treatment is treated with disgust and outdated ideas. Finch says that medication will take away who you are or that or a medical label like “bipolar” will only reduce you to a crazy case-study. This notion is never refuted.

It’s painful because the writing and the characters are wonderfully well-crafted, but if you’re looking for a book about depression I’d pass on this one. The demonization of proper treatment, the presence of possibly preventable suicide, and the sudden transformation of Finch into a manic pixie dream-boy all weigh the story down too much. Save yourself the heartache and read something with a bit more hope.



About Author

Alex Townsend

Alex Townsend is a writer, a day-dreamer, and a really cool person. She also has depression. It's okay. She's still cool and you're still cool. You'll make it. She believes in you.

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26 Comments

  1. Its so good to find someone else who agrees…I was recently diagnosed and I connected so hard with Finch, especially the times when he wondered “which part does Violet love”. I LOVED this book, but as soon as Finch went missing, I knew.

    I understood the characters reactions to the traditional methods, but you are entirely correct that she didn’t handle it right, she should have played a more positive spin on therapy and meds.

    What I hated most really was the fact that it took him doing that for anyone in his life to care. Even Violet – she loved Finch, but she didn’t necessarily CARE about him, not until it mattered. That to me was the most triggering aspect – everyone showing up to his funeral, saying that they loved and missed him. While it’s realistic I hated that, because I barely made it through high school without thinking about that. ]

    I cried for about a day at the ending 🙁 If you haven’t already, and I bet you have, and you want an uplifting book on mental illness – Silver Linings Playbook. The book > film (as it so often is) and it is beautiful and heartbreaking and inspiring.

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  3. I absolutely agree with all of this. Finch’s character is done such a disservice by the narrative in this book. I am fortunate enough not to suffer from depression, but my partner does, and the end of this book didn’t help me (as a “friend” of someone with depression) one bit. Instead it made me feel sick, disgusted, and actually did make me cry, but not for the reasons that it wanted to. I honestly wish I’d never read it and I think it’s actually dangerous to people, especially teens, suffering with mental health issues, because it heavily implies that there is no way for Finch to be helped. I’m not saying help is always successful, or that all suicides are preventable, but this book implies that it never is.

  4. Thank you. I have been boycotting this book on principle. I may quote your line: “Yes, there are wonderful people like Finch who lose that battle, but that isn’t the message that teens need to read about.” I am glad that someone else didn’t adore this book. In my eyes, it is not a helpful theme, or at least not done in a helpful way.

  5. Ugh. I finished this book tonight, but I didn’t want to finish it. I was so desperate to find someone else that shared my point of view because all of the reviews raved about it. I’m upset for so many reasons. And your review sums it up in the words I can’t yet express. The main thing that worries me is that so many teens will be reading this (or watching the movie that’s rumored to happen) and it just sends a heart breaking message.

  6. Rosemary A. Blodgett (@RosemaryAubry) on

    Really appreciated your point of view on this book. I felt gutted by it and thought it was powerful. You have made me recognize its weaknesses. I didn’t think as heavily on the therapy, the bipolar, & getting help even though I noticed it. Definitely mixed messages, but so hard to get this stuff “right” because where is the right? I’m a 49 year woman so my take and ability to filter the information (and maybe gloss over shortcomings) did make me wonder about recommending to teenagers.

  7. Oh, please. I loved this book. Not all books have happy endings. I don’t think this book implied that suicides are never preventable – it was just telling a story, one story. Teens commit suicide- it happens and this book showed that and how the other characters have to go on after Finch’s death. I don’t think a book needs to completely didactic for me to recommend it to a teen, but, that being said, there were plenty of lessons to be learned here. Teens deserve to read about everything -sadness, included.

  8. When I was close to finishing All the Bright Places, I was sensing what was about to happen and it made me so anxious that I couldn’t sleep. I really appreciate your thoughts here. I found the book to be so troubling.

    I try not to make judgments stating what teens should and shouldn’t read, and of course they should read about sad things. But I deeply agree with what I think you were saying here – this is not a realistic or healthy portrayal of the effects of depression and suicide.

  9. I haven’t actually read this book yet, but I’ve seen a lot of mixed reviews which was why I went looking for a review with spoilers to give me the whole story. And I found your review very helpful in my decision whether to read it (which I will be).
    I have read a number of “suicide books” (I don’t know what we are meant to call them?) recently, and I have to say that the majority of them have ended with the main character/both characters who have been contemplating suicide throughout the book actually surviving, whether that be through someone else saving their life or them deciding that life is worth living. Sure, you could say that these books are the ones that teens should be reading because then they see the story of hope and that will teach them that there is always something to live for.
    Although I haven’t read All The Bright Places, and only have your review and a few other to go on, I feel like even though this story does not end happily that maybe these are also the types of books that we need to be reading, and have younger people reading in order to teach them of the seriousness of depression and suicide. They can see the story unfold, they can see the moments when the person could have been saved if someone would have intervened, they can see the old fashioned opinions on medication and think “well that’s stupid”, and they can experience (through a character they have come to love) just how horrific it is to loose someone close to you to suicide. Then maybe, if someone in their own life happens to be going through something similar, they will now notice the signs, and they will know just how bad it can get.
    Everyone has their own opinion, non of which are more important then anyone else. But for me, I think both types of books are important. Sadly, life doesn’t always have happy endings, and this book shows that. But you are also right that everyone needs a little bit of hope in their life, and especially for those who are struggling, they need something to life for.

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  11. I’m about 2/3rds of the way into this book and don’t think I can finish it. I’ve got a bipolar sister and one of my son’s best friends is bipolar. They are both living fairly decent productive lives. I don’t want suicide to be the story people take away from a book about mental illness.

  12. I’m so glad I read your review. It’s been about two months since I finished reading All The Bright Places. I’m an avid reader and I read quite a few novels that deal with mental illness and suicide, but not a single one left me feeling as bad as this one did and I honestly regret reading it. Maybe the story hit too close to home for me. It surely didn’t meet my expectations. Sure, it was beautifully written and especially Finch was an interesting character. The quirkiness and profundity (quoting poetry) were a bit too clichéd for my liking, but still enjoyable. My concern with this book is that it glorifies mental illness and suicide. I’m not saying that this story needed a happy ending, but its ending left me shocked. First family, friends and even his girlfriend fail Finch… and after what happens to him, it doesn’t take them too long to get over it. Violet’s life is a much better and brighter one, thanks to Finch. Finding hope and inspiration in someone’s death is a deeply disturbing concept. One thing that’s common in suicidal people is that they think their loved ones would be better off without them – which is not true, obviously, but mental illnesses messes with people’s minds in such a deep way that it makes them believe others see them the way they see themselves, and that they’re nothing but a burden. All The Bright Places actually confirms this and it truly disgusts me. Reading this book is not only dangerous to people suffering from mental illnesses but also to those who have friends who are mentally ill and suicidal. Suicide should be prevented at all costs, and NEVER accepted as the only option.

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  14. CAN’T THERE BE A SEQUEL TO THIS BOOK WHERE FINCH WOULD BE FOUND JUST TO GIVE PEOPLE WITH DEPRESSION HOPE THAT THEY CAN SURVIVE IT? VIOLET’S LIFE MIGHT BE COMPLETE WITHOUT HIM BUT THAT EMPTY BIG SPACE WON’T LEAVE

  15. Look I don’t understand why people say this has a bad message yes not all people die from depression or bipolar disorder but THERE ARE some that died and it’s sad and not fair but it’s true the author has experienced this as she said her friend and grandpa died. She told her story that was sad but it happens and wanted to show the people. I think that this book would help people with depression as well because they would realise that they leave people behind and therw are people who love them and they can get help. This book shows some of the sad, true and unfair part of the life

  16. Hello!

    I’ve just started reading All The Bright Places, and I can surely say that how depression feels like has been expressed correctly in this book.

    As a person who also suffers from depression (and social anxiety), I wasn’t sure about whether or not I should read the book. I thought: “If my bad thoughts are stronger than ever right now,why should I risk the only thread of sanity that I’ve left by reading this book?”… I began to read the book anyway…

    As you, I went into this book with my guard very high, and I’m constantly remembering myself that this is just a book and that the words I’m reading are somebody else’s, not my own. But I can’t help but to agree with every thought and feeling Finch has, not Violet. I’ve noticed that I’m more like Finch.

    Now, about the fact that the means of recovery, therapists, and medicines where awfully portrayed… Well… I know that this book should have had a message of hope for us, and that these means of recovery should have portrayed in a good way as to make them look more appealing to us but… What teens think about these methods are actually what the characters showed. At least it was like that for me.

    My dislike towards therapists began when I was 12, and being treated for anorexia. My parents forced me to go to the therapist because they said I was sick for not wanting to eat and for throwing up. Luckily, I recovered from that. And I recovered by myself, by my own means. The therapist had nothing to do with it. The therapist would only make me angry because she pretended that she understood, she made me tell her everything just so she could later tell my parents about it, and then they would tell me off for having such “stupid” thoughts.

    I’m not being treated by a therapist now. I haven’t even been diagnosed with depression and anxiety by one, but there’s no need to, because I know what I have. And I know that these awful thoughts are not proper of a normal, happy person. And, about the medication… If I take them, who am I going to be then? I’m so used to having my mind always full with these thoughts, what would I do without them? How would I feel? What can I think of?

    Anyway, back on the main topic: I began reading All The Bright Places, and I know it is probably a mistake, but I’m willing to use this book to rebuild myself instead of letting it shatter me. As soon as I started the book, I created an anonymous blog to share my journey through my self-recovery. I’m going to use the book and its contents for my own good.

    I am willing to change, and I am going to change. As I read something that should be putting me to sleep forever, I’m going to make it turn me stronger and more awake that I have ever been. That’s why, in honor of the book, I’ve titled my blog “My Bright Places.”

    I’m going to recover.

  17. “In his absence Finch goes from being an interesting, well-rounded character to a manic pixie dream-boy. Prior to killing himself he left all sort of special messages for Violet to find, final love letters to the wonder of their romance. During this section Violet doesn’t question what was going through Finch’s mind or the tragedy of suicide. Instead it’s all about finding the next whimsical message and ultimately giving Violet the strength to move on with her life.”

    This made me gag. I hated Thirteen Reasons Why for how it treated depression and suicide, and it sounds like this book has a similar message. I also can’t stand how so many books for teens demonize medication and therapy, and we rarely get an opposing viewpoint.

    I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety, depression, and social phobia when I was 19, but I’d put off getting treatment for over a year. I never even told my parents that I was suffering severe anxiety since age 6 and thinking about suicide since age 15. Part of it was because all the negative messages about mental illness and meds I’d absorbed from media had taken root in my mind (and I wasn’t in my right state of mind then). Mental illness sapped away years of my life, and medication and therapy helped me get some control over my life again. Reading a book like this when I was at my worst would have just made it harder to get help.

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  22. I totally agree that the author did not entirely handle this well. In fact, I got even more depressed when I got to the ending that an eccentric, amazing boy like Finch, no matter how much we deny it, killed himself because people in the book didn’t care too much. It is sad to see these forms of help to be demonized, as you all claim, because depressed people like me are desperately searching for anything to keep us beating, and this book can make anyone feel like help is nonexistent. As one who is recovering from depression, there are people who do care and are willing to help if you reach out to them. I know because I did and it helped a lot. I was also disappointed because it seemed like Finch’s experience with violet was only false hope…I really expected that things would change for him, for the better because he needs to see that he’s not worthless, that he is full of possibilities and full of life. That this world isn’t all cruel and cold, that not everyone are shallow, selfish creatures trying to survive life. There is good in this world, and what a depressed person desperately needs is to see that good and also see the good in themselves. Unfortunately, this book had a lot of good in it like Finch’s adventure with violet etc…but in the end, it seemed to not matter when, in reality, these things should, especially for one who is searching for hope.

  23. Thank you for the review,& for all the comments. Reading the book, I just had this feeling and couldn’t finish it. I wanted to know if my guess was right-& reading this confirms. & with most people feeling terrible at the end, I am so thankful for your review and the comments. I usually don’t like spoilers and can make it through depressing stories, but Finch was just so heavy for me-& i could already tell it was a self sacrifice. I could see all his love for her, but it was the more typical boy love and saves girl and girl doesnt return it the same manner and i didnt want it to be true. & knowing friends with depression and suicide, wasnt sure if this would be a good fit. Im about halfway through, wont be finishing. Finch’s mentality & identifying with it in a way was creating more of a downward spiral personally than anything. It’s like you said, the book leaves no hope. I felt it wouldnt. So this is good to know. Thank you.

  24. Hey I am very pleased to find your review because i had been thinking of buying this book for my son and now i am like nooooooooooooooooooooo thank you

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  26. Working Rachel on

    “It’s a book for people with friends who commit suicide…In his absence Finch goes from being an interesting, well-rounded character to a manic pixie dream-boy. Prior to killing himself he left all sort of special messages for Violet to find, final love letters to the wonder of their romance. During this section Violet doesn’t question what was going through Finch’s mind or the tragedy of suicide. Instead it’s all about finding the next whimsical message and ultimately giving Violet the strength to move on with her life…“If you die the right way, you can end up being an inspiration to others.”

    YES. I wrote a book about suicide where there was intentionally no “reason” for the suicide. It got close to publication, but didn’t make it, maybe partially because of that. Since then I’ve read dozens of YA books about suicide and have been really bothered by how so many of them make suicide into a “puzzle” or romanticize it in one way or another. Most people don’t leave notes, and most people don’t have a clear-cut reason for committing suicide like bullying or abuse. I’ve never heard of a real-life case that involves an elaborate rabbit trail or a mystery like 13 Reasons Why or this book. And I really, really hate that this is what we are telling teens about suicide. Suicide is not a “gift” to those you leave behind. In my experience, it left the survivors angry, guilty, and resentful. (Not trying to blame those who are experiencing suicidal thoughts…just coming at it from the perspective of the survivors.)

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