Full disclosure: As someone who spent a scary number of their teen years coping with the hell of depression and suicidal ideation, there was absolutely no way I could look at this sort of subject matter from a purely unbiased standpoint. My background is, however, a large part of the reason I picked up this book—to see how it would be represented and handled. I was hopeful it would be the kind of book I wished would have existed at a formative time when I went to books for escape and perspective. Instead, I found a book I was grateful my younger self never encountered.
That’s not to say it was a poorly written book—quite to the contrary. My rating ultimately reflects both my personal enjoyment level and my concerns over the messages the story seems to be sending to the more vulnerable of the teen population (be this intentional or not.)
With all this in mind, I’ll endeavor to explain…
In A Nutshell:
Erratic-yet-vivacious Theodore Finch and grieving popular girl, Violet Markey, have little in common and no reason to cross paths. Until one fateful day they do—both while standing atop the same tower, contemplating the idea of jumping off. After Finch more or less talks Violet down, he immediately nurses a fascination with her. Violet rebuffs his interest consistently at first. But then, a geography assignment forces them together as partners on a hunt for noteworthy places within their home state. The two begin to find common ground in spouting poetry, along with a growing mutual attraction. As Violet begins to more effectively mourn the death of her older sister, Finch begins a downward spiral into depths he feels powerless to escape.
About The Blurb:
I don’t find the comparisons to The Fault in Our Stars to be justified, beyond the attempted sob-fest tragedy aspects. And I can only find the Eleanor and Park contrast fitting on the very basic level of the characters in question coming from significantly different social/domestic backgrounds. The writing itself doesn’t closely resemble either John Green or Rainbow Rowell, in this reader’s opinion.
What I Liked:
The story is told in first-person POV, alternating back and forth between Violet and Finch in a way that worked well for this type of storytelling. The prose is strong and stands with thoughtful cadence, while still setting itself apart. Niven’s conveyance of emotion is largely effectual, sometimes pleasing in its floweriness. The parallels some draw to this book and 13 Reasons Why are much more warranted—although the tone and ending impressions belong in different literary zip codes.
Finch’s obsessive contemplations on ways to off himself, and half-hearted dabbling attempts, all felt eerily spot-on. As did his wild swings from mania to depression—and the subsequent affect it had on his waffling sense of identity.
I also appreciated the countdown symmetry. Considering the subject material, it was unique and potent to have one main character counting down and the other one counting up throughout the story.
What Didn’t Work For Me:
Finch is intelligent, dynamic, and charismatically manipulative. He is, by leaps and bounds, the most memorable and interesting character—easily eclipsing Violet to the point of obscurity. He’s also a borderline stalker who, once fixated on Violet, pursues her to a point worthy of a restraining order. (The message here seems to be that if a guy refuses to respect your blatantly stated wishes, or your personal space, persistently enough—you should just give in.) As a result, the romance is uncomfortable—not only because of Finch’s pushy and obsessive behavioral patterns, but because it often comes across as romanticizing mental illness.
In no way am I contesting the portrayal of mental illness presented in this story. It’s the sense of glamorizing said illness that sat increasingly wrong with this reader.
All of the available adults in this book were either woefully uncaring, or useless—devoid of depth and leaving the unfortunate impression that grown-ups can’t be trusted with issues of teen mental health. While I admit it’s wholly believable that a number of adults wouldn’t know how to handle this sort of situation, the idea of leaving teen readers with so little hope of aid from that realm left this reader deeply unsettled.
Content Note: While some value is placed on the main female character’s virginity, and the eventual sex scenes are non-graphic, there is an underlying casualness and lack of concern (or mention) over contraception. And despite the “hero’s” allusions to prior promiscuity, no concern or thought is given to STD testing. Coarse language is moderate in usage, and generally within context—often believably proportional to Finch’s flights of personality. While the hopelessness of the takeaway is very concerning, the author does at least reference sources for seeking help at the very end… assuming readers are mindful enough to read on past the ending.
While I can see how this book may appeal to John Green fans looking for an emotional roller coaster, I can’t in good conscience recommend this book to teens who may be actively combating issues with severe mental illness.
"When we're in the act of wandering, we need to be present, not watching it through a lens."