This is going to be a major spoilers post for All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven, Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, and Looking for Alaska by John Green. Because there are things I want to discuss about All the Bright Places that I can’t without spoiling it or talking about other books with some similar themes.
If you want my no-spoilers review: I would recommend giving it a read, but it has difficult subjects.
By the time I finished Thirteen Reasons Why, I hated it.
I wasn’t exactly sure why. I liked Hannah and her voice, her anger and her spite. I wished she hadn’t killed herself; fictional or not, I don’t want anyone to ever feel that way. I did feel sure I hated Clay as a narrator. He and his reactions were as boring as toast, and the moralistic ending (oh, this time he’ll save someone because he’ll make them talk to him) was cheap.
I wasn’t exactly sure, though, why the book bothered me as much as it did. Why I just wanted to get rid of it.
Then I read All the Bright Places.
I realize now that Thirteen Reasons Why is about the people, the actions of other people, that drive a person to suicide. It’s a lesson. It’s a book that says, “These people did this bad stuff, and as a consequence, Hannah died.”
Only Thirteen Reasons Why missed the mark in terms of making that a lesson, for a few major reasons. And most of them have to do with the choice of narrator. (So at least my instincts made some kind of sense.)
Clay is the only person on Hannah’s list who never did anything to hurt her—not really, anyway. He wanted to be there for her, and she simply wished he’d pushed harder to get to her. But in the end, it’s just as much her fault that she didn’t talk to him.
Clay as a narrator is an issue because the people who need the lesson about bullying and doing harm to others are not the Clays of the world. They’re the other twelve “reasons.” There’s a sense of unfairness in the fact that Clay receives the tapes and that he’s listed as a reason. When he heads off in the end to push to help someone else (who he has already talked to, but they didn’t really say anything), the “lesson” doesn’t feel like a lesson. That person might choose to open up to Clay or not. They’re not best friends. Ultimately, the “lesson” shouldn’t be that you’re responsible for the mental health of people you kind of know to the point that you’ll bull over their boundaries to try to “help” (which at that point deserves quotations).
The lesson is to be kinder to others, because you have no idea what they’re going through. (And also not to be a peeping Tom or sexually assault people or the bajillion other horrid things that happen to and around Hannah, holy crap.) But we can’t extract that from a narrator like Clay, who is already “perfect” as described in the narrative. We can’t extract that from the text of Thirteen Reasons Why, because we don’t meet all the other “reasons” reacting to Hannah’s anger and death, and we know that at least one of them completely misses the point by simply getting angry at someone else who hurt Hannah “worse.”
Clay isn’t the one who needs the lesson to be kinder to others. Everyone else is. And they are the ones who need to be converted. But we don’t see how they might hear Hannah’s voice and learn something from her death (in fact, in one case, we see the opposite). We can learn only what Clay learns, and the lesson he takes from it is a problematic one (“it’s my fault that I didn’t push this person harder for their story, even if we weren’t that close, and I need to do better”) at best.
It’s great to want to help. Don’t get me wrong. But suicide isn’t something you can rescue someone from if you just care hard, long, and obviously enough. Thirteen Reasons Why doesn’t address this, because Thirteen Reasons Why is about how hurting someone can drive them to an awful choice. But while awareness of that is definitely necessary, that book had so much more potential to do a better job of changing the minds it had to change, rather than instilling guilt in the minds of people who already reach for kindness often.
(Many of the Clays of the world affected by deaths by suicide are people who cared about a person who’s gone, people who feel like garbage that they didn’t “fix” what was wrong with someone else, that they weren’t “enough.” And that they didn’t do enough is not necessarily the message they need.)
Much as Looking for Alaska pissed me off, it felt closer to the truth on this issue: you’ll never know exactly what that person felt. You’ll never know exactly why. And no matter how much you think you know about someone and their story, how open you are to hear or to do anything for them, you can’t stop them if they choose to disappear.
You can’t save someone else. Not really. You can talk them off a ledge one day, you can tell them every day that you love them, but you can’t keep waiting and watching that ledge every day. Your love can’t change what’s going on in their head. The ledge is something they have to walk away from themselves. Some days, you might be a good enough reason for someone to stay away from it. Until you’re not. You can care about someone all you want, but it’s not your choice.
The moment I sympathized most with Clay was when he was angry at Hannah because he was there. Because he would’ve been there for her. But she didn’t tell him anything.
All the Bright Places gets it.
I don’t say that really from personal experience. No one very close to me has ever committed suicide. I haven’t been suicidal for a long time.
But I do say that from personal experience, because I wrote my first suicide note at ten. I’ve been in love with people who were suicidal. I have known people who have committed suicide. I have spoken to people who told me I’d be the last person they spoke to, but then they lived one more day, and another.
So on some level, though I am alive and the Finches in my life are not dead, I think I get it. And I think All the Bright Places does, too.
In All the Bright Places, two characters meet on a ledge. Both are considering jumping off of it. One of them is delinquent, troubled, with negligent and abusive parents and a mess of a life. One of them has suffered a huge loss and is so numb to the world that she doesn’t seem sure what she’s doing.
On that day, Finch saves Violet, who’s closer to the edge. But Violet also saves Finch, who was standing there, too. They give each other reasons to step back. Only Violet walks away from the ledge entirely, finds a way to laugh again, to want to live. Her experience is excruciating, but she finds a way to move forward, and not without help and support from others who care about her.
But Finch lives with it there all the time. And for a long time, Violet is a good enough reason to stay away from it. Until she’s not.
I’m not sure how to rate All the Bright Places yet, which is maybe why I’m comparing it to other books, writing back to it a bit with my own experience. Books like this strike a chord because they’re real. Finch reads like an absolutely larger than life character, but he’s also far too familiar to me to feel completely made up. I’ve never lost a sister, but I can sympathize with Violet’s loss of words, the way she sleepwalks through her days. Grief and depression often feel like close cousins.
For those of you keeping score at home, both Looking for Alaska and All the Bright Places come from a personal place from their authors. Both are about a loss—deemed ambiguous, but most likely suicide—that a teen has of someone they love. So why am I at a loss for criticism when it comes to All the Bright Places when I couldn’t stand Looking for Alaska?
I don’t doubt both books came from a place of only the best intentions, and a lot of personal feelings I can’t begin to understand. I am, however, confused as to why no one in the publishing of Looking for Alaska said, “Well, this reads a lot like a narrative foil/manic pixie dream girl killed herself and thus the narrator learned a Lesson, which is a little weird because this boy is super privileged and she’s had a hard life and lot of pain and she dies but it’s still all about him…?”
But All the Bright Places is equally, up until the days before his death, Finch’s voice. It is equally about Finch and his journey, not just about how he affects Violet’s. Finch matters, not just as someone who teaches Violet something—although he does—but as a human being whose feelings and actions were extraordinary and worth knowing. He’s still a bit of a mystery, even to himself. But he’s much more person, complete and flawed, than narrative foil or manic pixie dead boy.
And the reason why his relationship with Violet is compelling is because they can reach each other—because Violet is also suffering from something. Because, at least at first, they save each other. And while Finch still tries to hide the worst of what he feels from Violet because he’s so afraid of not being loved, that shared hurt helps them forge a real connection.
Whereas really, Alaska is the one who saves Miles from boredom and existential crisis. But his effect on her in return is really never obvious, and she never lets him in. There’s no reason to; he doesn’t seem to have the capacity to understand her, and she’s so far up on a pedestal with him, it seems like he might never let her be a real person. When she disappears, he simply has to guess.
The trail of clues Violet follows both to find Finch and to find what he left for her was there because as much as Violet doesn’t know Finch, she also does. He gave her some part of who he was because they loved each other. And he left something behind because he hoped she would remember that.
All the Bright Places gets it. I’m sure it does have flaws; while on one hand it addresses how restrictive labels can feel and how scary medication can be for mental illnesses, it didn’t address the other side of how having a diagnosis can be helpful, and how medication can be crucial for some people. (It also assumes all Canadians say “aboot,” which I swear most of us really don’t. Canada is a large place with many different accents.) I’m still parsing through my feelings about it, and I didn’t feel that it was flawless.
But it’s nice to feel like a book on some level gets it, especially after I’ve read others that are so, so popular that I feel missed that mark.
If you got this far, thanks for tuning in today. I’ll be back next week with more Weekly Reads—probably with less dire themes.
And if you happen to be one of the people in the world who feels suicidal sometimes and you feel like talking to an Internet stranger, drop me a line. Or talk to your best friend. A distant friend. Your family. Whoever. If you can, let someone in. I promise, someone cares and wants you to live. And if none of those people do, then I do.