Sunday, 7 April 2013

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

Publication date: 25th October 2011
Published by: Harper Collins
Genre: Contemporary & Fantasy (YA) 
Attention! Simply Brilliant.

Wow! Before I fall was such an unexpected read.  I had purposely avoided reading any reviews and didn’t read the entire synopsis and somehow thought it was about something entirely different.  On seeing that I had marked it as a book I was currently reading, several of my Goodreads friends had made contact with me about the book to say how much they loved it, which made me more curious and, to some extent, raised my expectations.

The first thing we learn is that the protagonist, Sam Kingston, is dead.  She is talking to us from somewhere in the afterlife.  The realisation of her demise has hit her and she is full of sorrow and regret.  She ponders on the last thing that came into her head before she died and how unexpected that thing turned out to be (an event that occurred when she was a child when she took part in a joke at another girl’s expense).  Then she tells us what happened on her last day, Friday 12th February – Cupid’s Day (a school celebration) – from the moment she woke up to the sound of her alarm clock to the events that occurred at school, the after school house party she attended and finally the accident where she was killed.  At that point we come to the end of the first chapter and I thought, Okay, what else is there?

Chapter 2 – in the afterlife - Sam is alerted to a noise that turns out to be her alarm clock.  She opens her eyes and finds herself in her bedroom.  She wonders how she got there after the accident.  She soon discovers that she has woken up yesterday, Friday 12 February – Cupid’s day…

If this sounds vaguely familiar you are probably thinking of that movie Groundhog Day, which does get a mention – clearly Sam saw it too.  With each chapter Sam wakes up on the same day, the day she died, and relives it, trying to make small changes to alter the outcome – with a negative outcome each time.  It would appear that Sam is trapped (in purgatory) and she needs to discover what to do to be set free – that is, if she can be set free.  What we learn about Sam throughout the novel is that she does not appear to be nice person.  She is part of a group of popular and mean girls.  

Before I fall is very well written and I admire Lauren Oliver for writing about a lead protagonist who is unsympathetic, but at the same time writing a story that is so engaging and thought-provoking that it leaves you hooked.  I felt completely tied to this novel from start to end.  It was not an easy read.  In fact, at times it was an uncomfortable read, but also quite brilliant.

At one point Sam justifies her behaviour by saying the sorts of things she and her friends did happen in every high school in America, and probably every high school everywhere.  I am inclined to agree with her.   There is always the popular crowd and the invisible crowd.  Within the popular crowd there is always a ringleader who is hero-worshiped like a messiah and the loyal followers who behave like disciples, and they will insist on amusing themselves by picking on the easy targets.  Sam and her friends, Ally and Elody, are disciples to Lindsay.   

Unlike her friends Sam did not belong in the popular group – right up to middle school she was invisible herself.  She knew what it was like to be mocked and sneered at, but when the opportunity came for her to join the popular group she didn’t hesitate – supposedly faking it at first before fitting right in.  In a way that makes her behaviour worse. That said, although she is not easy to like, I admired Sam for being consistent throughout – she doesn’t easily see the error of her ways and become a ‘good girl’ all of a sudden – it takes a while.  Even when she realises the extent to which she was culpable, her primary motive for acceptance is selfish – she wants out of purgatory.  She does learn a very important lesson but, for me, she remains unsympathetic throughout.  

However, I said Sam does not appear to be a good person, but she is not a bad person.  The last thing she thinks of before she dies tells us this, and she genuinely does want to put things right (eventually).  When the revelation of the truth about Lindsay comes, the person she has looked up to, hero-worshipped and followed blindly for so long, she becomes angry with her, but also sympathetic and understanding.  She continues to love her friend throughout – despite her major flaws (which I think was a good thing).  

The point Sam tries to make is that they may have behaved badly but their intentions weren’t to cause the amount of harm they actually did.  Looking back at my own high school years I can see this is true.  Although I was neither a leader nor a follower, they existed in my year and I was an onlooker.   I stood by and watched them torment the easy target (there was one of those too) and didn’t step in to defend her.  I may even have laughed at times – because it seemed harmless at the time.  Also, whenever I remember my high school years I think about the easy target in my class with regret – wishing I understood then what I understand now – and wonder what became of her.

There is a wonderfully written (albeit tragic) love story in there too. Spoiler alert: Sam did nothing but criticise and find fault with Kent when she was alive, despite his devotion to her since early childhood. In death Sam's true feelings for Kent creep up on her slowly, and when it hits her it comes crashing like the falling of a ton of bricks.

I can’t wait to read more of Lauren Oliver’s work. If I were to draw parallels it would be with Sarah Dessen, whose novel Just Listen reminded me of this one – not the story but the style. I can see Oliver becoming one of my favourite YA fiction authors.

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