Holy cow, this book packs an emotional wallop! Had I known the subject matter in advance, I probably would have passed it up, being basically cowardly when it comes to emotional challenges. But I’m ever so glad I did not know, and so got to read it.
This is not a light book; it is full of pain as well as beauty. Nor does the author provide easy answers to the problems of mental anguish and bullying so well limned in the story. (She does, however, provide a quite extensive list of online resources in an Appendix.)
Mild Spoilers Ahead – To Avoid Any Spoilers, Proceed to Evaluation and Rating, Below
Narration alternates between two high school seniors, Theodore Finch and Violet Markey. Both are very bright, but very troubled – Theodore more so than Violet. Violet still has not recovered from the death of her older sister Eleanor, who died nine months earlier in a car accident in which Violet survived. Violet won’t get into a car for any reason, can no longer write (she and Eleanor had a very popular blog they worked on together) and she now wears Eleanor’s glasses, even though they are not right for her vision. But doesn’t Eleanor still deserve to see the world now? It was Violet, after all, who suggested taking the icy bridge on their way driving home from a party, but it is Eleanor who ended up dead. “Every big or small moment I’ve lived since last April,” Violet thinks, “feels like cheating in some way.”
Theodore’s problems are even more serious than Violet’s. Theo, called Finch by his friends and Freak by everyone else, is brilliant, creative, and funny, but he is severely manic depressive. His single mom works two jobs, and pays no attention whatsoever to her three children, not even noticing Theo’s occasional long descents into darkness. She insists that the kids go see their father every Sunday, even though her ex beat her severely enough to land her in the hospital, and beat Theo regularly as well. But she doesn’t care because she wants the time to herself. Theo is a boy who has to adjust to the fact that even his own parents don’t care about him. He feels broken, and impossible to love. Theo is constantly thinking of different methods to commit suicide.
Finch and Violet meet on the top of the school bell tower, where both of them are checking out the possibility of a suicide jump. Finch saves Violet, but lets the school think she in fact was up there to save him. Finch doesn’t care; everyone already thinks he is a freak. He is entranced with Violet, and in geography class, where they have to pair up for a project on “The Wonders of Indiana,” Finch calls out that he wants Violet as his partner.
As they go see the local “wonders” (highest point, the quarry from which stone came to build the Empire State Building, a giant sycamore that grew from a seed taken to the moon and back, etc.), they become close, and eventually fall in love. Finch helps Violet heal, but she can’t help Theo. And in the end, when she once again has to cope with loss, she finds out how much Finch actually gave to her.
Discussion: There are so many poignant passages in this book, evincing Finch’s poetic soul as well as his pain and longing. It’s difficult to pick just one to showcase:
“I walk through the black Indiana night, under a ceiling of stars, and think about the phrase ‘elegance and euphoria,’ and how it describes exactly what I feel with Violet.
For once, I don’t want to be anyone but Theodore Finch, the boy she sees. He understands what it is to be elegant and euphoric and a hundred different people, most of them flawed and stupid, part asshole, part screwup, part freak, a boy who wants to be easy for the folks around him so that he doesn’t worry them and, most of all, easy for himself. A boy who belongs – here in the world, here in his own skin. He is exactly who I want to be and what I want my epitaph to say: The Boy Violet Markey Loves.”
Later, Finch will recreate that night for Violet, in “the single loveliest thing anyone’s ever done for me.”
Evaluation: This book, which I found on a list of “Best YA Books of All Time” is thought-provoking, heart-wrenching, and definitely lives up to the standard suggested by Franz Kafka, that “A literary work must be an ice axe to break the sea frozen inside us.”
Published by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, 2015