“All The Bright Places” opens as the two narrators, Violet Markey and Theodore Finch, meet on the edge of the school bell tower, each one considering jumping off. With typical generosity, Finch immediately abandons his own desperate wish and coaxes Violet to step back into the building. Thus begins an odd relationship that gradually develops into a compelling and heartbreaking love story. The difference between the two suicidal teens, beautifully caught in their narrative voices, is almost immediately apparent. Violet, once a high school cheerleader and talented writer from a loving, supportive family, is emotionally paralyzed by guilt because she was unhurt in a car crash that killed her older sister 10 months earlier. Finch, the victim of his father’s violent abuse and his mother’s inability to accept divorce, suffers from deep (untreated) depression and bursts of anger, but when he is “awake,” he is charming, brilliant, musical, witty – and wonderfully, exuberantly alive.
At Finch’s insistence, the two of them work as partners in a school assignment that requires all seniors explore the “important sites of Indiana” – a project that initially makes the students scoff. But Finch, inspired by his growing love for Violet, insists that there are places of interest, so they bike to the highest point in the state (1,076 feet). Later, as he persuades Violet to break out of the frozen circle she has lived in since the accident, they discover places wholly ordinary people have made special: a bookmobile trailer camp, trees hung with shoes, and a small chapel. Symbolically, their adventures prove that you don’t have to be superb to be interesting – that sites become “important” not because they are spectacular, but because love has made them memorable.
The book’s title, like the assignment, refers to Suess’s “Oh, The Places You’ll Go,” which Finch and Violet read together on one of their midnight journeys: “You’ll find the bright places/where Boom Bands are playing.” After laughing at their performance of the book, the two climb to the top of the town’s unglamorous Purina Tower, where they look out at the stars and the lights of the sleeping city. It’s a lovely moment – and, like the title, deeply ironic.
Niven, who has previously published only for adults, wrote this book in part as a meditation on the suicides of a member of her family and of a boy she once loved. She treats the subject with the respect and understing it deserves, not grimly or didactically but with real sensitivity to people of all ages who see nothing but darkness, or see and treasure all the bright places but finally succumb to the dark place within them.
Laura Stevenson lives in Wilmington and her most recent novels, “Return in Kind” and “Liar from Vermont,” are both set on Boyd Hill Road.