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Hey, don’t forget to look up this week. The Perseids meteor shower peaks Thursday and Friday, as many as 200 meteors an hour, according to NASA.

This summer I’ve been re-reading The Sandman comics. It’s impossible to go slow because the library only seems to have these massive annotated volumes with 15-25 issues each. While conducive to binge reading, these volumes weigh several pounds and are too large to fit in my bag. It makes for an interesting walk from the library on 90 degree days and a fun subway ride home during rush hour. The effort is worth it, but sinking into an epic of this scope has one big drawback.

Summer is traditionally a time for great books and, next to Sandman, no other reading is measuring up. I have a number of street finds lined up for my post – Sandman funk – The Passage and Outlander! – but what to do in the meantime? YA is often a sufficient source of entertainment. Admittedly, I judged Jennifer Niven’s All The Bright Places by it’s perky title and pretty cover. That was a mistake.

allbright

This book is a downer. Downer books should have a special sticker so those of us not seeking melancholy will know to stay away. Call them Bummer Books! – the exclamation point being the jazz hands of punctuation. But seriously, there should be some indication that this could be a trigger book for readers struggling with depression and anxiety. This is not a story about healing.

On the surface, this is a typical YA romance with a depressingly predictable end. We have a boy and a girl who connect with one another because they are so very different from everyone else. Violet and Theodore Finch meet on the edge at the top of a bell tower at school. Violet is pretty and popular and nobody sees how hard she’s struggling since losing her sister in a car crash. Finch is up there because it’s one of those days.

Together they work on a project for Geography class, exploring their home state of Indiana. Together they wander to places they think are strange or pretty. Finch pours his attention into getting Violet out of the house and making her smile. He gets her to ride in a car again.

What a terrible feeling to love someone and not be able to help them.

SPOILERS AHEAD

Between Violet’s overprotective parents and Finch’s manic highs and lows, it’s pretty clear where this is heading. Until it gets there, the love story has its moments but they’re very one note. My boyfriend uses the term masala to refer to movies with a little bit of everything. With love, hahas, tragedy, bullying, neglective parents, bi-polar, suicide, abuse this is a masala book. Something for everyone with plenty of despair to spare.

A number of YA suicide/self harm/depression books have come out in the past few years and some of them are probably good, but this one rubbed me the wrong way. You see suicide coming from early on and that paints it as inevitable as in Of course a bi-polar kid kills himself. That’s what they do. About 50 percent of people with bi-polar attempt suicide and 15 percent do kill themselves. It’s an important subject so it threw me when suddenly the story is about about Violet surviving Finch’s suicide. It’s okay for her to grieve her sister’s accident, but the perceived stigma of suicide confuses the mourning, keeps her from reaching out for support.

Stigma? Maybe this book would’ve made more sense had it been set in the 90s or earlier? I remember not being allowed to attend the funerals of a few relatives as a kid. When I asked what happened to these loved ones who seemed so young and wild the answer was always “heart attack”. Clean, no questions asked. My sisters and I were convinced we’d die of heart attacks before 30, too. I think the truth made relatives feel ashamed and that’s hard. As an adult, losing people to suicide is agonizing, but there’s no secrecy around it and suicide isn’t viewed as a reflection of the family or anything other than tragic. So Violet’s experience here came across as false or at least dated.

Also, Finch repeatedly says he doesn’t want to be labeled. He’s having a hard enough time at school as it is. I started rubbing my face with these. Where’s the friend who points out that maybe if he got some help he wouldn’t have such a difficult time because teachers would be able to work with him rather than write him off as lazy. Maybe if he got treatment he wouldn’t dip so low in the first place. These friends don’t always exist in real life, so they don’t always exist in fiction. But I kept thinking about teens dealing with similar issues, reading this and having their most dangerous assumptions -that seeking help is a bad thing- confirmed. Yes, Theodore Finch ends up dead along with all the cool things he might’ve done and relationships he might’ve had, but that’s not the point for some reason.

At best this is a story for people who have friends that are depressed. But not really. The suicide happens after Violet finally urges Finch to get help and then she spends the last bit feeling bad for trying to help him. Ugh. Generally, I like fiction that deals with darker subjects, which are not to be confused with Bummer Books! Here the author’s voice bugged me and I hate how the subjects of mental illness, suicide and judgement of those who do seek treatment and group support are handled.

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