All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven (YA)

All the Bright Places

All the Bright Places

Jennifer Niven (Young Adult Fiction)

“Is today a good day to die?”  Theodore Finch asks himself this question in the morning, during third period, and at supper.  He also counts the days that he is Awake.  Awake is good and safe and where he needs to be.  Violet Markey counts the days until graduation.  When she can begin a new life away from Bartlett, Indiana and the pain she feels every day since her sister died.  Both Finch and Violet are counting, but what they didn’t count on was meeting on the ledge at the top of the high school bell tower.  They didn’t count on wandering around their state discovering out-of-the-way landmarks and attractions.  Most of all, they didn’t count on falling in love.

All the Bright Places gives readers a gritty and honest look into bipolar disorder.  Told in alternating narratives by Finch and Violet, we experience bullying, loss, domestic abuse, suicide, and mental illness.  With so many disturbing and difficult topics, it is a testament to Niven that readers are given a story filled with laughter, love, and hope.  Through two fractured and flawed main characters, we see teenagers struggling to understand their place in the world and determined—despite all odds—to make their mark within it.

Young Adult Me liked the star-crossed relationship between Finch and Violet.  He was the Yin to her Yang and the two complemented one another well.  Finch’s fearlessness in approaching Violet about her loss enabled her to break free from her psychological prison and regain her independence.  Violet, in turn, acted as a compass giving Finch direction and much-needed stability.  However, Adult Me really had a problem with Finch’s family and how they chose to deal with his manic depression.  It seemed too easy and convenient to chalk up his behavior as quirky and weird and, “Oh, that’s just Finch.”  When he disappears for days, they dismiss it as, “He does that sometimes.”  This cavalier attitude seems a bit apathetic for a family already put through the wringer with divorce…and a nasty one at that.  During weekly visits with the Finch patriarch, it’s obvious that Finch’s condition is hereditary and one would think that his mother would be hesitant to turn a blind eye a second time around.  But in the end, Young Adult Me just told Adult Me to stop overthinking things and enjoy the story…so I did.

Niven gives us a raw and poignant story about two teens drowning in their own pools of mental anguish and personal guilt.  Whether by luck or fate, they find each other and extend the healing lifelines of forgiveness, acceptance, and love to each other.  Through them, we see that it is possible for life to go on no matter how impossible or improbable it may seem at the time.  Throughout their story, Finch and Violet express their need to feel relevant, their desire to matter, and their wish to be remembered.  By seeking out the hidden treasures within their own state (a backyard roller coaster, a shoe tree, or a book mobile park), the two begin to uncover their own self-worth that eventually allows a violet to bloom and a finch to fly.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.target.com

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The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst

The Dogs of Babel

The Dogs of Babel

Carolyn Parkhurst (Adult Fiction)

“Here is what we know, those of us who can speak to tell a story: On the afternoon of October 24, my wife, Lexy Ransome, climbed to the top of the apple tree in our backyard and fell to her death.  There were no witnesses, save our dog, Lorelei.”

Paul Iverson is desperate to understand how his young, beautiful, and artistic wife died.  Judging by her injuries and how her body landed, the police conclude that she didn’t jump.  There are so many things that Paul is just discovering like there are two ways of falling and that each one tells a story.  That on the day she died, Lexy rearranged the books on their bookshelf and cooked an entire steak just for Lorelei.  The books, the steak, and the apple tree all tell Paul that the day Lexy died wasn’t a usual day.  There are so many questions and the only one who can answer them can’t even speak…yet.

Carolyn Parkhurst delivers a novel that is a thriller wrapped around a mystery and enclosed within an endearing and heartbreaking love story.  Paul is our narrator and shares with us the moment he heard of Lexy’s death and then rewinds to show us how his and Lexy’s story began with their initial meeting and subsequent first date.  His voice is rich in detail and overflows with the love he feels for his wife and the loss he experiences by a life cut tragically short.  Every marriage has its ups and downs and Paul and Lexy’s marriage is no different; however, she was the yin to his yang and their union was symbiotic albeit sometimes tempestuous.

The Dogs of Babel is a beautiful, painful, thoughtful, and at times humorous story, but at its very core is a man grieving and desperate for answers.  His obsession of finding out the truth from his dog is futile and ridiculous.  We know it, his friends and colleagues know it, and even Paul himself knows it, but when you’re drowning, you’ll grasp for anything that can serve as a lifeline.  In this case, his lifeline is Lorelei.  Parkhurst gives us a memorable and stirring novel about the ones left behind when a sudden and untimely tragedy occurs.  The ones left with questions, loneliness, and oftentimes guilt and whose daily goals are measured by mere breaths.

Paul Iverson was a linguist by profession, and he often made a game of seeing how many words he could make out of a name.  He felt that these newly formed words somehow gave insight into the person themselves.  With The Dogs of Babel, I see the words blood, desolate, loathe, and death, but I also see self, glee, holdfast, and heals.  In the Bible, The Tower of Babel signified the beginning of the division of mankind through the infliction of diverse languages—punishment for man’s desire to reach the heavens for “godlike” status.  But Parkhurst reminds us that grief and love are universal and transcend the written word or spoken language.  They unite us in our healing and help us find a way to move forward…one breath at a time.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

 

 

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar

The Bell Jar

Sylvia Plath (Adult Fiction)

Esther Greenwood knew something was wrong with her that summer, and it wasn’t just the electrocution of the Rosenbergs or all the non-stop talk surrounding it.  She was supposed to be having the time of her life.  She was in New York and living the high life—a far cry from her 19 years living in a small New England town.  It was the summer of 1953 and what Esther knew for certain was that one of her troubles was Doreen.

Published in 1963, The Bell Jar was poet Sylvia Plath’s first and only novel.  Weeks after her book’s publication, Plath committed suicide at the age of 30.  Given that Plath’s personal struggles with money and depression parallels those of her main character, it is understandable why many view The Bell Jar as being semi-autobiographical.  Although this book deals with grave and bleak issues, Plath’s poetic prowess shines through giving readers a story that is poignant yet subtly lighthearted.  Although Plath’s future as a novelist would never be fully realized, she managed to give us a heroine that epitomized the women of her day.  The feminist movement saw its beginnings in 1963 and Plath put Esther right on the front lines—questioning societal views on conformity, conservatism, femininity, marriage, and family.

Much has changed since the release of The Bell Jar, but the increasing number of individuals diagnosed with depression or anxiety, as well as the rise in suicides, continue to make this novel timely and relevant.  Throughout the story, told in first-person narrative, Esther often describes herself as existing inside a bell jar: continually experiencing isolation and detachment from the outside world, always feeling that she is on display and expected to be more than she is or ever will be, and constantly struggling to be “perfect”.  When Esther learned that the famous novelist, Philomena Guinea, would be willing to pay for her treatment and education, Esther could conjure up neither gratitude nor any amount of relief: “I knew I should be grateful to Mrs. Guinea, only I couldn’t feel a thing.  If Mrs. Guinea had given me a ticket to Europe, or a round-the-world cruise, it wouldn’t have made one scrap of difference to me, because wherever I sat—on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok—I would be sitting under the same bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.”

Esther Greenwood is a young woman trapped in a life that she is tired of living, yet afraid of leaving.  During her story, I often found myself silently cheering those times when the seal of her bell jar was lifted just enough to allow a bit a fresh air to seep through.  It was during these times that I hoped Esther, and others who suffer under their own bell jar, would be able to momentarily experience a feeling of joy, worth, and hope.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.barnesandnoble.com