Tuesday, May 19, 2015

What We're Reading: Romance and Mental Illness

High school senior Theodore Finch, known as Theodore Freak by many, has his reasons for being on the ledge of the school bell tower. Finch thinks about suicide every day he is awake, but there are also reasons to stay alive. He is, however, surprised to find that on that particular day, he is not alone on the ledge. When he sees popular, beautiful Violet Markey just a few feet away, Finch’s first instinct is to talk her into carefully stepping back to safety, and telling everyone that she was there to save him. But Violet had her reason for being there – the loss of her sister in a car crash that spared her own life. Thus, a reluctant friendship starts between Violet and Finch, eventually evolving into so much more as the two teens embark on an adventure to see all the remarkable places in their home state of Indiana. As Finch shows Violet all the reasons to be alive, he cannot stop his own descent into the quicksand of bipolar disorder, unable to reach out to anyone.

I picked up All the Bright Places expecting a romance novel “about a boy named Finch and a girl named Violet,” which is what it says on the cover of the book. In a way, it was a romance novel, in the way that John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars is a romance novel – but it is also so much more. The book is an emotional, intimate view of mental illness, suicide, and loss, which are subjects relevant to teens and adults alike. Telling the story alternatively from Violet's and Finch’s points of view, author Jennifer Niven shows us the world of someone suffering from a mental illness and also the challenges of the people around them. Violet's and Finch's story illustrates that even though many teens suffering from a mental illness may feel misunderstood and isolated, their pain transfers through a ripple effect to many others, starting with the people closest to them. But it also shows that despite the pain and isolation, there are bright places and beautiful things in the world, like friendship and love and there is such a thing as the perfect day, as Finch comes to realize toward the end.

Although the author does not sound didactic or point fingers, she does raise one important issue that will be of interest to teens and adults - that of adult responsibility in recognizing and addressing signs of mental disorders and suicide. A 2012 National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) study found that the rate of bipolar disorder in teens approaches that of adults, especially in older teens. It found that the frequent presence of mania alone is important, since it can be associated with behavioral problems. This is all quite obvious in the book, but so is the fact that there seems to be very little adult involvement or genuine concern from Finch's family, school counselor, teachers, or peers. This novel is eye-opening because it gives us a clear, honest view of a genuine problem that can in fact be addressed if more people are educated and aware.

If the topic of bipolar disorder interests you, consider The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides, which provides another intimate look at the disorder and its effects.

Editor's note: The library also has All the Bright Places as an audio book, for those who prefer to listen.

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