This is the story of two teenagers, a boy and a girl, growing up and confronting reality in contemporary Indiana, USA. Theodore Finch – usually addressed only by his surname – is an eccentric, constantly attempting to reinvent himself. His father has left Finch and started a new family, having a seven-year-old son who (Finch suspects) may not actually be his father’s child.
Violet Markey is 16. Coming home from a party she was in an automobile accident with her older sister Eleanor, a popular 18-year-old. Eleanor did not survive the accident. Violet was once keen on writing. But since the accident her literary ambitions have dried up. She also refuses to get in a car.
At a point in time when Finch and Violet have not yet met, on the same day they coincidentally ascend the High School bell tower. In the reader’s mind is the possibility that both may be intent to end their lives. They talk, and decide to descend and survive.
Finch and Violet share just one school session, namely geography. The teacher sets the pupils up in pairs and asks them to go forth, find some landmarks in their state and report on what they find. Violet and Finch are paired. Since the motor crash Violet has been withdrawn and passive. Finch challenges her to become active once more.
So much for the setting. What now follows is a road story in the great American tradition of Kerouac and others, but in this case featuring teenagers rather than grizzled veterans or Harley Davidson riders. Initially Violet declines to travel by car, preferring to cycle. But gradually she grows used to travelling by automobile, first as a passenger and then as driver.
They find some bizarre places, including a copse of trees where for some imponderable reason people have deposited thousands of pairs of shoes. They find a farmer with a small property who has built two roller coasters on spare land. They ride both. They find a lake and go swimming. By now they are boyfriend and girlfriend. They narrate the story in alternating episodes.
Violet keeps a notebook on their journeying. Both are intent on producing their report. The reader imagines the report being about the places discovered. In reality it is about the two travellers and what they learn of each other. The story ends tragically.
It is a hard task for an author to confront in total honesty the ways that some young people come to look, not feverishly and hysterically, but coolly and dispassionately at their lives and at life itself – and to decide that it may not be worth enduring. Niven addresses this daunting task and succeeds through utter candour and a resolute refusal to soften or sentimentalise the lessons of the story. Her book is not a comfortable read. But it deserves to stand alongside some of the best American novels about the existential challenges to youth.