It could have been maudlin. It’s not.
It could have been preachy. It’s not.
What Before I Fall is, is awesome.
The protagonist, Samantha “Sam” Kingston, will alienate a lot of readers at first. She and her friends Lindsay, Elody, and Ally make up the ruling clique at their high school. Steeped in privilege, fawned over by other students and teachers alike, they torment classmates who are lower on the social ladder. Sam is uneasy about some of the bullying behavior, but goes along with it — in part because she doesn’t quite realize how damaging it is, and in part because she was once one of the dorky kids and is terrified that she could slip and become one of them again. Everything changes when Sam and her friends get into a car accident on the way home from a Friday night party. Sam dies.
Then she wakes up in the morning, safe in her own bed. It’s Friday again.
All in all, Sam lives that fateful Friday seven times, Groundhog Day-style. As she makes different choices each time, she sees all the little chain reactions she causes, and develops beautifully as a character. Then she comes to realize that she’s been given these extra chances for a reason. It’s up to her to figure out what that reason is and what actions will add up just right to make it happen. Some of the most affecting moments come when Sam makes a change, it leads to a wonderful experience, and then the “next” morning she starts over and that moment has been lost. Lauren Oliver keeps a complex timeline running smoothly and all her Chekhov’s Guns firing with precision. Every detail is important. When I went back into the novel to find a quote for this review, I saw yet more details I’d overlooked before. I find myself wanting to read Before I Fall twenty more times to make sure I appreciate every bit of craft that went into it.
Oliver writes in an authentic teen voice and never breaks character. Some YA authors write characters who talk and think like thirty-year-olds, and some authors try too hard to sound hip. Sam’s voice is spot-on. I loved this passage:
I remember something Mrs. Harbor once said on one of her crazy tangents in English: that Plato believed that the whole world — everything we can see — was just like shadows on a cave wall. We can’t actually see the real thing, the thing that’s casting the shadow in the first place. I have that feeling now, of being surrounded by shadows, like I’m seeing the impression of the thing before the thing itself.
Let me tell you something: here is what you don’t need to be thinking about when your whole life is falling apart. (1) Crazy English teachers who are always going random and (2) Greek philosophers.
If you were a teenager, an ordinary girl more familiar with Plato’s Closet than Plato’s Republic, but found yourself in a situation so bizarre that it had you pondering half-remembered bits of philosophy… isn’t that just exactly how you would think? I love it. Oliver finds a way to use a deep, intellectual idea without stepping out of character to do it.
By the end of the book, I bet you’ll love Sam, who grows in so many ways as she sees everything she’s been oblivious to all these years. The character development, and all the lovely falling and flight imagery, may bring tears to your eyes. And Kent! Pardon my gushing, but he may well be my favorite YA male lead ever. I’d trade all the sparkly vampires in the world for one Kent McFuller: geeky artist, wearer of funny hats and shoes, knight in shining armor. Sam’s friends aren’t just one-dimensional queen bees, either. I applaud Oliver for making me like them, or at least enjoy their company. They can be incredibly mean. Yet within their own circle, they’re hilarious and supportive, and they genuinely love each other.
I can’t decide whether I like the ending. I’ll just say there were two ways it could have gone, and I was kind of on “Team Other Ending,” but the real ending is written so perfectly that I can’t be too upset.
Before I Fall is a book that will stay with me for a long time. I suspect it’ll become one of my annual rereads.