People always talk like there’s a bright line between imagination and memory, but there isn’t, at least not for me. I remember what I’ve imagined and imagine what I remember.
I imagine this book had to have been one of the hardest to write for author John Green, because much like the main character, 16-year-old Aza, he has Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Prior to reading this book, much of what I knew about OCD centered around behaviors I’ve seen on TV and in movies (think Jack Nicholson in “As Good as it Gets” or the clean-freak Monica in “Friends”). Turtles All the Way Down gives you a first-hand look into the mind of a person with OCD, and how those instrusive thoughts can paralyze us in our everyday lives.
Thoughts are just a different type of bacteria, colonizing you. I thought about the gut-brain information axis. Maybe you’re already gone. The prisoners run the jail now. Not a person so much as a swarm. Not a bee, but the hive.
Sixteen-year-old Aza never intended to pursue the mystery of fugitive billionaire Russell Pickett, but there’s a hundred-thousand-dollar reward at stake and her Best and Most Fearless Friend, Daisy, is eager to investigate. So together, they navigate the short distance and broad divides that separate them from Russell Pickett’s son, Davis.
Aza is trying. She is trying to be a good daughter, a good friend, a good student, and maybe even a good detective, while also living within the ever-tightening spiral of her own thoughts.
This book is a much quicker read than The Fault in Our Stars but I’m not sure it’s any less painful. The characters are well drawn, except I still don’t know what Aza looked like–she never described herself nor did anyone else around her. Daisy is a wonderful comedic sidekick–tough when it’s warranted, zany in her world of Star Wars fan fiction, and forever loyal, even as frustrated as she gets with Aza. Daisy and Aza provide much of the light-hearted banter I remember from Paper Towns and The Fault in Our Stars. I couldn’t help but think of how much this story is the opposite of what most YA books represent. While other books have characters fussing about their parents and wanting distance, Aza and Davis both have voids in their lives in the parental department, and these voids deeply impact them.
Green also nails how isolating having a mental illness can be. When you’re in the throes of it, you don’t want to see or talk to anyone else lest you feel the pressure to appear “normal,” but there can also be a deep crushing sadness that hits you when you feel like your “weirdness” and idiosyncrasies keep others away.
There are many beautiful and complicated relationships in this book–Davis and his younger brother, Noah; their relationship with the missing enigmatic Russell Pickett, Daisy and Aza, Aza and Davis, Aza and her mother, etc. But, as Green writes:
You remember your first love because they show you, prove to you, that you can love and be loved, that nothing in the world is deserved except for love, that love is both how you become a person, and why.
I remember running down a road on my way to a nursery of flowers.
I remember her smile and her laugh when I was my best self and she looked at me like I could do no wrong and was whole.
I remember how she looked at me the same way even when I wasn’t.
I remember her hand in mine and how that felt, as if something and someone belonged to me.
-Theodore Finch, All the Bright Places
I don’t know any other way to describe this book except that it broke my heart in a million little pieces and left me crying for hours. You may read this and think, “Well, I won’t be reading THAT book.” But if you’re like me, and sometimes you seek out certain songs, books, movies, etc., so that you can feel something more deeply than you’ve ever felt before, then maybe you’ll consider this beautifully-written book that gives the best depiction of bipolar disorder that I’ve ever seen.
All the Bright Places is told from two viewpoints—Violet and Theodore Finch (a.k.a. “Finch). When the book opens they have both snuck up to the bell tower on their school’s campus—Violet, because she is still reeling from the death of her older sister in a car accident, and Finch, because as he so bluntly puts it, is wondering if “Today is a good day to die.” Finch is surprised to find himself talking Violet into climbing back off the ledge, as he knows the crowd she hangs out with is pretty popular and she doesn’t strike him as the depressed type. After their encounter, he becomes curious to learn more about her and pursues her until they are paired together on a class project where they are challenged to learn more about their home state of Indiana. He even pens a set of “Rules for Wandering” for them both.
Chapter by chapter, the layers of Violet and Finch are revealed. Their home lives couldn’t be more different, and Violet watches as her ex-boyfriend and his teammates relentlessly bully Finch for reasons she can’t understand. Listening to Finch describe the way he feels when he is “awake” versus when he is “asleep” gives the reader an enlightening picture of the highs and lows of someone with bipolar disorder (Finch never says he has it but it becomes more and more clear throughout the book that he is undiagnosed and should probably be medicated).
Violet and Finch work together on their class project where they wander all over the state (this takes some doing at first, as Violet hasn’t ridden in a car since she and her sister’s accident) visiting unusual places like Hoosier Hill (with its elevation of 1,257 feet) to a farm where a man has built one-person amusement parks ride out of scrap metal. Finch’s hard work pays off—he slowly starts to pull Violet out of her shell and against her wishes, she finds herself drawn to him. She also learns a few of the family secrets he’s been hiding all his life, and begins to realize the highs and lows of his personality may be doing him more harm than good.
This book is a difficult read for anyone who has ever watched a loved one go through a mental illness. Violet is a normal teenage girl who truly believes love can help them both overcome their obstacles. Unfortunately, the novel does not have a happy ending. Author Jennifer Niven shared her own personal story at the end of the book which sheds lot of light on the trajectory of the story.
In that moment, I’m thankful I’m not a parent and I wonder if I ever will be. What a terrible feeling to love someone and not be able to help them.
Actually, I know exactly how that feels.
–Violet Markey, All the Bright Places
This young adult novel is a painful read, but the prose and the love between the characters is so beautiful and haunting and realistic that I think it expands far beyond the scope of teenage readers. There is one scene where Violet and Finch quote Virginia Woolf to one another on a computer chat and I couldn’t help but think what I would have done if a boy had spoken my language in such a way at that age. He also calls her “Ultraviolet.”
If you look at this book in my Kindle, you’ll see pages upon pages of highlighted material that made me pause. It’s one of those books that you wish you had the courage and talent to write yourself. Bravo, Jennifer Niven, and I’m sorry for what you had to go through to get to this place.