When Wandering Turns into Wondering
Author: Jennifer Niven
Publisher: Penguin Books
Every forty seconds, someone in the world dies by suicide.
Every forty seconds, someone is left behind to cope with the loss.
These are the first two lines of the Author’s Note, written at the end of All the Bright Places as a brief manifesto – to use a word the book’s protagonist also enjoyed using. The protagonist is called Theodore Finch (code name: Freak; Theo for his family), and he spends most of his days planning how to end his own life. That asides, he’s one of those ”perfect fictional boyfriends”, so clever, so witty, and so dashing, that it’s absolutely illogical to think he’d want to quit Earth and go to a place without potential female admirers.
Between browsing the Internet to find statistics about the most frequent ways of committing suicide, and making notes about famous people who chose this path (among which, Cesare Pavese and Virginia Woolf), Theodore also likes to experiment with things. One of his experiments seems to alter his perspective and his purposes, without – alas! – changing his ways. Since the fateful meeting with his schoolmate Violet Markey in the school’s bell tower, the (anti-)hero is trying to make his new unwilling friend understand that there can be life after death; in this case, the death of her elder sister in an accident that Violet herself survived.
Alternating between Violet’s and Theodore’s point of views, Jennifer Niven sketches a different, though not completely deviated, high-school experience. All in all, the two main characters are a classic type of boy-meets-girl, with ”Extenuating Circumstances” (as Violet calls the excuse she uses to avoid otherwise normal actions or interactions – the fact that she’s still mourning her sister). While Violet can’t seem to move on after her sister’s accident, things get into gear once Theodore slips under her protective shell. On the other hand, the plain fact of loving her and knowing that he’s also loved by her doesn’t seem to suffice for him; day after painful day, he paints his own world in darker and darker colours, and a brusque twist of events changes everything – again.
Every second review I browsed while pondering my own was mentioning A Fault in Our Stars. One webzine recommended All the Bright Places for those suffering of Hazel-and-Gus withdrawal; another claimed that the comparison exists, and with good arguments, but at the same the two books are completely independent. I tend to agree with both: my first reaction (particularly to the way Theodore is built) was to think, hey, this is AFIOS all over again. Except that it’s not. I think ATBP is somehow easier to read, perhaps benefiting from a more straightforward vocabulary, or from a more sinuous word flow. However, the parallel Theodore-Augustus exists, and it also creates the Violet-Hazel comparison. Both guys are absolutely impossible to believe (because, well... perfection!), while still being unimaginably flawed, not by their own wish or on their accord, but as a cruel twist of fate.
Without being terribly spoiler-y, I’d like to add that the open ending, just as with AFIOS, leaves a lot of questions and what if-s behind. The author’s notes are particularly helpful in terms of understanding the book’s educational and moral aims. The fact that the Germ webzine is actually real (you can find the Wandering section here: Wandering) gives the characters and places substance.
As a final personal touch, I’d like to add that I somehow felt more impressed, or should I say moved, by this particular book. The choice of words, perhaps, or the pacing - I couldn’t tell. I felt closer to these two star-crossed young adult lovers; perhaps my own high-school experiences, or my own thoughts from when I was their age, helped.
Go to the waters if it suits thee there. But never be afraid to ask for help.
This is an easy reading, though the choice of words is lovely and it makes you think; the characters don’t lack substance, albeit they’re a tad too perfect to exist; some of the ideas (e.g. the Indiana Wandering) are quite original and worthy to follow; it’s an accurate description of broken people, families, and things.
For those familiar with AFIOS, the end might seem predictable; there are many clichés borrowed from the typical American high-school environment (e.g. the cheerleader who is more than meets the eye, the once-friendly jock etc.); it might be a disappointment for those who love happy ends.