These books were a recent YA/ mental-health(ish) fiction kick, and since they share similar themes and genres, I’ve decided to review them together, particularly in the interest of getting through all of my 2015 reads before the end of January! Both of these are touching, introspective stories, in very different ways.
To begin, let’s talk about Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon. I’d seen a lot about this book on various platforms – all over booktube, and plenty of book bloggers had mentioned it. On a recent trip to Waterstones in Nottingham, I decided to give this one a go. It only took me two days to read, as the pacing is really well done – it’s easy to read but interesting.
The concept: Madeline (or Maddy) has not left her house for most of her life, due to SCID or severe combined immunodeficiency – essentially, her immune system is not developed enough to manage many of the things it would encounter on a daily basis outside.
The romance of this story is adorably done, and I really enjoyed seeing it based on friendship. Yes, it happens quickly, but this is within the context of exploring how someone like Madeline might cope – or fail to cope – with her restriction and isolation are incredibly interesting. For me, that circumstance and the strong element of friendship as well as romance eliminated any feeling that it was ‘insta-love’.
I found the blurb a bit misleading, and was glad to like Olly more than I expected to, as the description of him being ‘determined to reach her’ sounded less romantic and more stalker-esque. Badly written blurbs irritate me (See: [link]Ava Lavender) and while this one isn’t that bad, the novel wasn’t what I was expecting; but that turned out to be a good thing!
The characters also all are interestingly flawed – unlike many YA authors, Nicola Yoon has no need for you to always be on her protagonists side and believe that she is unimpeachably right – Maddy makes mistakes, acts impulsively, does things she knows she’ll regret. She also doesn’t need to have the whole story wrapped up nicely with bow on top – much like difficult situations in reality, things can end a bit messily and be imperfect. While I’ve seen people complain about Maddy’s flaws and impulsivity, I didn’t mind it at all. I don’t want a character who only ever gets things right because I wouldn’t believe it. More to the point for me, getting things wrong and having to deal with the consequences of that is a fundamental experience of growing up, and this is YA fiction. Some of the most difficult lessons we ever have to learn are about dealing with our own flaws – and what to do when other people mess up. I was really interested in how this novel approached those subjects. Maddy makes some decisions that are ill-thought through and silly – but please find me a teenager who has never done that?
What I’ve enjoyed in reflection though is how it reads as an updated version of the princess-in-the-tower fairytale. If you’ve read the book you can probably fill out the fairytale cast for yourself – I won’t hash the whole thing out for the sake of potential spoilers – but I think we can all agree, Carla is an excellent fairy godmother.
Moving on, let’s talk about All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven. This book.
The story follows two teenagers in their senior year of high school, Violet Markey and Theodore Finch. They meet while both stood on the ledge of the school bell tower, considering what it would be like to jump off. Both are contemplating suicide – they both have demons following them around which drove them there, although their demons look very different. Violets are composed of grief after her sister’s death, while Finch’s are made of his own mental health problems.
This book did take a while to win me around. I felt like the focus was unclearly split, between whether to focus on their relationship or their mental health – while two interesting storylines, I felt that the narrative could potentially have balanced these two narratives a little better. In addition, neither character really emerges as a protagonist overall – they get equal amounts of attention.
For the first half of the novel, I did sympathise with Finch, but I badly wanted him to just leave Violent alone. While I appreciate that it turns out alright and their relationship is very sweet, his initial cornering her into spending time alone with him made me feel uncomfortable. I felt like he was doing it mostly out of selfishness, which he convinced himself was a desire to help her – and she repeatedly asks him to go away, leave her alone, because he is now connected with the secret she most fears anyone knowing and is most ashamed of. She doesn’t give him any outward indication that she wants him around ‘really’ – and her own side of things only reinforces that she would like him to stop pestering her, turning up at her house. Except her occasional wonderings about what it would be like to kiss him, of course – which she usually regards with confusion. I’d have preferred this initial part of their friendship to have been written in a way that wasn’t so manipulative on Finch’s part.
To be clear – the relationship in this book is adorable, but some slight adjustment in those first chapters would be welcome to me.
Moving on to the major ‘issues’ that this novel engages with – bipolar disorder, and bereavement. Finch’s experience of ‘awake’ and ‘asleep’, his fear of being labelled and categorised, are very sensitively done. Obviously experiences of any mental health problem vary massively, but this novel brings us a certain manifestation of that experience from the inside, and endeavours to make it less alien.
Both narrators are very interesting to read and have a lot going on. We are presented with their situations as simultaneous, and not ever invited to choose who has it worse. They both have their hurts – who has it harder is a pointless thing to think about, because what the story seeks to drive home is that they both deserve and need empathy, support, understanding. We all need these things in our lives, and we all deserve them. Whether we get them in down to so many factors – including whether we are willing to accept that help.
Some of the writing here reminded me of Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun – Finch’s voice occasionally reminded me of Noah Sweetwine, particularly the quote from him used on the cover design: ‘You are all the colours in one, at full brightness.’
It certainly wasn’t easy on the heart reading this, and it stands up to reflection a couple of months after finishing.
Between the two books, I think personally I preferred All the Bright Places, because for me it felt it had more depth. Mostly though, I think it is just a matter of taste! But by far I would recommend either to anyone seeking a bit of YA romance, with lots of heart.