When we meet Theodore Finch, he's standing outside a six-story window, contemplating suicide. At the end of the book, he follows through.
In between, he thinks about killing himself almost constantly, down to the fun facts about other people's suicides that he types up in his journal:
Facts: Jumping increases on full moons and holidays. One of the more famous jumpers was Roy Raymond, founder of Victoria's Secret. (3.52)
Uh…good to know? Add to that Violet's grief over the death of her sister, and we've got ourselves one seriously morbid novel.
What's interesting is that it's also pretty lively. Part of that comes down to Finch, whose manic moods and racing thoughts keep things moving. On a night drive to Violet's house, for instance, he describes how speeding like a lunatic makes him feel more alive:
I lean forward, like I'm a rocket, like I. Am. The. Car. And I start yelling because I'm getting more awake by the second. I feel the rush and then some—I feel everything around me and in me, the road and my blood at my heart beating up into my throat… (6.5)
Pretty exciting stuff, right?
Finally, this is a book in which everyone's searching for something. Violet searches for meaning in her life after her sister dies in a car accident. Later, she searches for answers after Finch takes his own life. She writes in a notebook:
Where are you? And why did you go? I guess I'll never know this. Was it because I made you mad? Because I tried to help? (55.56)
Before he dies, Finch searches for an identity, a sense of belonging, and peace. He never finds them.
Ugh. And now we're searching for a tissue.
Published in 2015, All the Bright Places is definitely not a Modernist work. Still, it draws heavily on writers from that era. From the epigraph to the final sentence, the author quotes Ernest Hemingway, Cesare Pavese, and especially Virginia Woolf. The Modernist perspective was to find beauty in stuff that's bleak—a feeling that the author of this book seems to share.
In another sense, the book is very much of its own time—there's Facebook stalking and a online mag that sounds like it's inspired by Rookie. And its protagonists are in high school, which is hint #1 that we're dealing with a YA novel.
But All The Bright Places is snugly under the umbrella of one more genre. Know how you finished an entire box of Kleenex during the last few chapters? Well, that's one way you can be sure that this book's a tragedy.
Another sign was that feeling of dread you felt up until Finch's body was found. From the moment we met him on that ledge, there was a certain sense of doom surrounding his character. He fought a hard battle to save his own life, but bipolar disorder and depression won in the end.
It's a coming-of-age story about the ups and downs of life—and it's also the last book that Dr. Seuss published before he died. It's a happy, hopeful book, but it has some sadness, too.
When Finch and Violet break into a bookstore, Oh, the Places You'll Go! is one of the books they read together:
We alternative stanzas, first Finch, then me, Finch, then me.
Today is your day.
You're off to Great Places!
You're off and away!
At some point, Finch gets to his feet and starts acting it out. […] His voice turns serious as he recites lines about dark places and useless places and waiting places, where people don't do anything but wait. Then his voice turns light again and he is singing the words.
You'll find the bright places
where the Boom Bands are playing.
He pulls me to my feet.
With banner flip-flapping,
once more you'll ride high!
Ready for anything under the sky. (20.31-20.37)
All the Bright Places, then, refers to those golden, perfect moments in a person's life—the ones that make you happy. Oh, and it also refers to the tourist attractions (the many wonders of the state of Indiana) that Violet and Finch are visiting for their school project.
The thing to remember about bright places, though, is that they can only exist in contrast to dark places. That's true for everyone—hey, we all have highs and lows—but it's especially true for Finch, who has bipolar disorder.
In the final chapter, Violet goes swimming by herself in the Blue Hole. This is where she went swimming with Finch during one of their wanderings, and also the place where he took his own life. In going there, she's confronting some of her best and worst memories.
The final lines are a reference to The Waves, a Virginia Woolf book that she and Finch were always quoting to one another:
I think of my own epitaph, still to be written, and all the places I'll wander. No longer rooted, but gold, flowing. I feel a thousand capacities spring up in me. (59.6)
Swimming in the Blue Hole doesn't bring Violet a sense of closure, exactly, but it brings her a sense of peace. She accepts the good and the bad, finding a sort of balance the two. She "tread[s] water" (59.6)—she doesn't sink or float. She lets herself feel excited about the future, which is wide open. Then, out of nowhere, a shark rises out of the water and gobbles her up.
Okay, we made the shark part up.
Welcome to Bartlett High School, where it seems like everyone has an awful secret, tragedy…or both. Violet tells us:
Our town is small but our school is large. We have over two thousand students because we're the only high school for miles. (11.2)
Bartlett itself is sort of hard to pin down; it has some fancy-sounding classes (Russian Lit and Humanities, anyone?) for a public school, but people are allowed to smoke during gym class. (Um, what?) Also it offers, in what seems to be the present day, a macramé extracurricular? Go figure.
Geography class—U.S. Geography class, to be precise—is really important in this novel because it's what brings Violet and Finch together. For a project, the pair is tasked with "wandering" around the state of Indiana (which is, of course, where they live). Together, they float in a legendary swimming hole, ride homemade roller coasters, and visit a bookmobile park.
The magic they find in these ordinary places pushes against what some readers (and characters) think of as a faceless Midwestern state.
The world breaks everyone, and afterward, many are strong at the broken places.
In All the Bright Places, Finch and Violet are constantly referring to famous writers who killed themselves. What better way to start the book, then, than with a cameo from Papa himself—Ernest Hemingway, who shot himself in 1961.
It also sounds like Violet; the world breaks her twice (with the deaths of her sister and Finch), and she has to find strength within herself to survive.
The key word in the quote is many. "Many"—not all—"are strong at the broken places." Though it's not included in the epigraph, it's worth noting the line that comes next: "But those it will not break it kills."
Sniffle. That makes us think of Finch.
Finch and Violet are dealing with complex problems, including grief and mental illness. Fortunately for us, they're really good at explaining those uber-difficult feelings. They also have a sense of humor about it, which is nice for us readers; a lot of the couple's conversations consist solely of bummers, so their jokes help keep everything from feeling too heavy.
Most of the language in the book is modern and straightforward, but it also borrows passages from literary writers that have reps for being difficult—Virginia Woolf and all manner of Russian novelists and poets whom Finch and Violet like to quote to one another.
Don't worry, they aren't that pretentious; they're just really feeling those lines. And hey: They also quote a lot of Dr. Seuss.
While Finch and Violet have real depth, it's hard to ignore the degree to which the author relies on cliché to build her secondary characters. It's hard to say which is more cheesy: Amanda, the perfect cheerleader who secretly has bulimia; Finch's mother, a pathetic divorcee who loves wine (and just hates being single); or his father, a cheatin' bigot who grills a lot of meat in between his beatdowns of various women and children.
Even Finch's world-weary guidance counselor (with "dark circles under his eyes and the smoker's lines etched around his mouth" [1.93]) came straight out of central casting.
Still, there are some modern, even innovative, touches. One is the subtitles for the chapters, which help tell the story. Finch's chapters measure the days by how long he's been "awake"—that is, not depressed (Chapter 3, for instance, is "Day 6 (still) of being awake"). Violet's chapters start by counting down the days to graduation ("153 days till graduation"). Later, after she has sex with Finch, they reset: Chapter 33 is "The Day Of" and Chapter 35 is "The morning after." We can see she's measuring time in a new way, living in the moment.
There are other modern touches, too, like the online mag that Violet's working on and her long instant-message conversations with Finch. Which brings us to our last style word: writerly.
Violet's a writer. Finch is a writer of songs, as well as the thousands of Post-its he sticks to his walls. And the two of them constantly quote writers like Virginia Woolf to one another to better express all their feelings. Finch says:
My skin starts to burn. She's quoting Virginia Woolf back to me. My pulse has tripled its pace. (8.50)
We feel you, Finch. Our pulse triples whenever we meet another Woolf fan, too.
You know that one sappy story about his childhood that your uncle tells at every family gathering? The one about how ice cream was a quarter and he'd get a double scoop of strawberry before going fishing at the ol' water hole, because that's "what kids did in the days before Snapperchat and Instantpics"?
Well, Finch has this really maudlin memory about a dead bird. And he tells us about it approximately one million times over the course of the novel. Long story short, when Finch was a kid, a cardinal flew into a window in his living room over and over until, one day, it died. Finch, being Finch, held an elaborate funeral for it and has obsessed about the whole thing ever since.
Finch names this incident as the source of his "first black mood" (45.61) and he thinks about the cardinal whenever he's feeling down, which is often. At first, he felt guilty for not saving it. Over time, he's come to think of the cardinal's death as a suicide:
The cardinal was dead either way, whether he came inside or not. Maybe he knew it, and maybe that's why he decided to crash into the glass a little harder than normal that day. (25.9)
You may have noticed that Finch is also a bird name. That's not an accident, guys. The dead cardinal symbolizes Finch. When it died, Finch said, "There was nothing to make him last a long time" (45.60). He quotes himself on the wall of his bedroom before he commits suicide.
This one's Symbolism 101, folks. Violet is named for a flower, which Finch views as a symbol of life and hope. And he's not alone: Flowers are a pretty universal symbol of renewal and rebirth. Think of Japanese cherry blossom festivals, Burns' poem "A Red, Red Rose," or the abundance of flowers at weddings.
One day, during a manic episode, Finch goes to great lengths to bring her a bouquet from a greenhouse. He tells the people who run the greenhouse:
"Winter is here, and I don't know where I'll be by spring. I want her to know that I'm thinking of her and that this isn't a season of death but one for living." (40.52)
When he brings the flowers to Violet, she gets it right away. "Finch, you brought me spring," she says (40.78).
After Finch disappears, but before his body is found, Violet and her parents go to visit the site where Eleanor died:
Embedded in the ground is a license plate, one that suddenly looks familiar, and circling this is a small garden where someone has plated flowers. Finch. (51.1)
Cue the soaring music. We think that a good tagline for this book would be: Even in death, Finch is bringing her spring.
Mr. Black, Finch and Violet's U.S. Geography teacher, wants his class to see the world…or, well, the world of Indiana.
As part of a program recently "implemented by the school board…to enlighten students as to the rich history available in their own home state and inspire Hoosier pride" (3.5), he's asking students to pair off and "wander"—that is, see the sights, such as they are.
Finch, who never met a metaphor he didn't like, immediately recognizes the project is a symbol for life. He tells Violet:
"We also have to be willing to go where the road takes us. This means the grand, the small, the bizarre, the poetic, the beautiful, the ugly, the surprising. Just like life." (4.4)
Due to death, depression, and the sort of lackluster reputation of Indiana itself (what's up, Indiana—we know you're a beautiful state), Finch and Violet didn't expect to have an amazing time.
They do, though; at one point, Finch tells Violet:
"I feel like I just walked through the back of the wardrobe and into Narnia." (11.140)
The ordinary places they visit might sound sort of dinky (a tiny hill, a huge ball of paint), but to the couple, they're full of magic and charm.
Sigh. Where's Neil deGrasse Tyson when you need him?
But actually, this one's not as complicated as it sounds. Finch tells Violet a story about an April Fool's Day hoax played by a famous astronomer, Sir Patrick Moore. (Yup, this happened in real life.)
"[Moore] told viewers that they could experience the phenomenon by jumping in the air at the exact moment the alignment occurred. If they did, they would feel weightless, like they were floating." (34.17)
The public bought it hook, line, and sinker, and soon enough Moore was getting calls from all sorts of people who said they floated across their backyards like balloons. The phenomenon wasn't real, of course; it was just a joke. What's important is that it felt real.
Finch considers the Jovian-Plutonian effect to be a symbol for romantic love. He even calls Violet "my Jovian-Plutonian gravitational effect" (45.18). (Talk about nerdy pet names.) What can we say? Sometimes people make their own magic in this world.
Throughout the book, we switch back and forth between Finch's and Violet's perspectives. Each chapter is helpfully titled "Finch" or "Violet" so we know who's saying what, but their voices are different enough that the labels aren't 100% necessary.
Finch tends to ramble when he's having a manic episode, like the time he tells a stranger about Violet:
"She's named for a flower, and her father hates me, and I want her to know that I'm thinking of her and that this isn't a season of death but one for living." (40.52)
(Whew. We feel winded just reading that run-on.) Toward the end of the book, as Finch is falling into a depression, his chapters become more short and fragmentary. Chapter 46 contains a short quote followed by just four words, stretched across four lines:
Pretty soon after that, we stop hearing from him altogether.
Violet's voice, on the other hand, is more even and thoughtful. (She's always thinking; Finch is always doing.) Even during a burst of inspiration, she speaks in calm, controlled sentences.
Over my desk, I've got this enormous bulletin board, and on it I've tacked black-and-white photographs of writers at work. I take these down and dig through my desk until I come up with a stack of brightly colored Post-its. On one of them, I write: lovely. (22.4)
Her chapters are like yoga class, where Finch's are more like Zumba.
The really useful thing about switching between these two points of view is that we get a clear, full picture of Finch's mental illness. (This is something that no character, including Finch himself, has.) From Finch, we get reports of what his episodes feel like from the inside. From Violet, we learn what they look like from the outside.
In a way, it's frustrating. We can't help but feel that if everyone had shared their knowledge, Finch would've had a happier ending.
One rainy morning, two high school seniors find each other standing outside a window at the top of a tower. Meet Violet and Finch, who are each, for their own reasons, thinking about suicide. They talk each other down and something like a friendship is born.
For a school project, Violet and Finch visit cheesy tourist attractions around the state of Indiana. Along the way, they fall in love (yay), but they also battle serious personal demons (boo). Violet grieves her sister's sudden death. Finch is trying to deal with undiagnosed bipolar disorder. They help each other out as best they can.
Also, they make out. A lot.
Violet finds out that Finch tried to kill himself and confronts him about it, which leads to a big fat fight. She wants to help, but Finch freaks out and runs away from home. No one can find him—but then again, no one's really looking. After a couple months of little to no contact with him, even Violet gives up.
One morning Finch sends weird emails to everyone he knows. They sound a lot like goodbyes. Violet puts on her Nancy Drew hat and figures out he might have gone to the Blue Hole, a place where they once went swimming. She goes there, only to find that Finch has drowned himself.
In the parlance of our times, Violet has a sad. (Honestly, we shouldn't joke about it. She's so, so sad.) Finch is dead. Her sister Eleanor is dead. She resolves to remember them even though it's hard. The future is uncertain, but that's okay. She allows herself to feel a little hope.