Fiction – audiobook. Read by Kirby Heyborne and Ariadne Meyers. Listening Library, 2015. 11 hours, 4 minutes. Library copy.
Quirky and unpredictable Theodore Finch counts his days forward from the last time he slept. Grieving Violet Markey counts her days down until graduation, until she can move on with her life after high school.
Moving on, though, doesn’t look the way Violet always planned. The website she started with her sister, who didn’t survive the car crash she and Violet were in, is about to lose its domain name; the application to college in New York sits finished yet unsent in her bedroom. And her grief leads her to the top of the bell tower at school where Finch, the resident weirdo of their Indiana high school, also happens to be.
Finch guides Violet back over the railing and, later, he guides her around Indiana after he insists she be his partner on a class project. The project is meant to teach students about the beauty of Indiana before they move on to what they perceive to be greener pastures. (It managed to make me want to visit Indiana.) Ultimately, though, the project teaches Violet that there may be something more to Finch’s behavior than just a label of quirky.
In many ways, Niven’s novel mirrors other young adult novels that have received a lot of praise over the years. Alternating narration between a boy and a girl? Check. Quirky yet troubled character? Check. Complicated home life? Check. Whimsical adventures and romantic notes? Check. Realization that a character’s actions are motivated by a much darker situation? Check.
The standout aspect of Niven’s novel is the focus on suicide — the contemplation of, the attempt of, and the act of — and how young people can be drawn to the idea due to situational depression or clinical mental illness. It is a topic that must be handled with the best of care, particularly given how the novel is geared towards teenagers and young adult readers.
Which makes the ending of the novel so hard to cope with and, thus, the novel a difficult book to recommend. While likely more accurate than the hopeful, daisies-and-sunshine ending Niven could have given her characters, it hit me harder than I anticipated. It was definitely not the book to read in the shadow of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain’s suicides. Nor was it an appropriate audiobook to listen to at work given how I’m still coping with grief over my mom’s death in January.
More than that, though, I felt like the ending offered a bait-and-switch for the reader. The story is not about suicide; it is about how one overcomes the loss of a friend who commits suicide. Niven states at the end that this is an experience she went through herself, which explains why the novel took such a turn.
Yet, in the midst of it all, the switch turns the character who commits suicide from a complex character to the “manic pixie dream girl” that is found so frequently in other young adult novels. Their life and, especially, their absence become about teaching the teach survivor to “embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures”. Which, ultimately, seems to say that a death is more valuable than a life, that people would be better off without you. No, no, NO.
If you don’t mind (further) spoilers, Alex at Disability in Kidlit wrote a more detailed examination of this message and other problems with the presentation of recovery from mental illness in this novel. I, for one, will be curious to hear the opinions of my book club when we meet tonight. Some of them have already given the book high marks on GoodReads.
If you find yourself struggling, the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is here for you, 24/7, at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The National Alliance on Mental Illness is also available to offer guidance and support at 1-800-950-6264 or firstname.lastname@example.org.