MK’s Book Reviews: Before I Fall

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It’s Tuesday, which means it’s time for a book review!

Today: Before I Fallby Lauren Oliver

I read this book last year, but recently decided to reread it. It’s one of those novels that’s actually better the second time around, because knowing where it’s going, you catch a lot more on the reread. This novel was also the beginning of my love affair with Lauren Oliver, a fantastic young writer who’s on my list of people I want to be like when I grow up.

First, a synopsis:

For popular high school senior Samantha Kingston, February 12—”Cupid Day”—should be one big party, a day of valentines and roses and the privileges that come with being at the top of the social pyramid. And it is…until she dies in a terrible accident that night.

However, she still wakes up the next morning. In fact, Sam lives the last day of her life seven times, until she realizes that by making even the slightest changes, she may hold more power than she ever imagined.

So it sounds strange, but interesting. I wasn’t super excited by the description of Samantha–“popular high school senior”–since I’m much more drawn to people on the fringes of society, the unpopular ones. But as always, it was the first 250 words that hooked me:

They say that just before you die your whole life flashes before your eyes, but that’s not how it happened for me.

To be honest, I’d always thought the whole final-moment mental life-scan thing sounded pretty awful. Some things are better left buried and forgotten, as my mom would say. I’d be happy to forget all of the fifth grade, for example (the glasses-and-pink-braces period), and does anybody want to relive the first day of middle school? Add in all of the boring family vacations, pointless algebra classes, period cramps, and bad kisses I barely lived through the first time around…

The truth is, though, I wouldn’t have minded reliving my greatest hits: when Rob Cokran and I first hooked up in the middle of the dance floor at homecoming, so everyone saw and knew we were together; when Lindsay, Elody, Ally and I got drunk and tried to make snow angels in May, leaving person-sized imprints in Ally’s lawn; my sweet-sixteen party, when we set out a hundred tea lights and danced on the table in the backyard; the time Lindsay and I pranked Clara Seuse on Halloween, got chased by the cops, and laughed so hard we almost threw up–the things I wanted to remember; the things I wanted to be remembered for.

But before I died I didn’t think of Rob, or any other guy. I didn’t think of all the outrageous things I’d done with my friends. I didn’t even think of my family, or the way the morning light turns the walls in my bedroom the color of cream, or the way the azaleas outside my window smell in July, a mixture of honey and cinnamon. 

So obviously Oliver is a lovely writer, but it’s not just that which sucks you in. Right away, you get a sense of one of the best things this novel has going for it: voice. The entire story is written in this pitch-perfect teenage voice, yet somehow still manages to be poetic:

Maybe you can afford to wait. Maybe for you there’s a tomorrow. Maybe for you there’s one thousand tomorrows, or three thousand, or ten, so much time you can bathe in it, roll around it, let it slide like coins through you fingers. So much time you can waste it.

But for some of us there’s only today. And the truth is, you never really know.

Another accomplishment of this novel: it starts with a pretty unlikable protagonist. Samantha is one of those girls everyone looked up to in high school, but no one really liked. Because she’s mean. It’s hard to write an unsympathetic protagonist, especially a teenage one. But it’s also more unique; I haven’t read every YA book out there, but I’d be willing to bet that a majority of them do star the unpopular fringe-of-society character.

The whole point of growing up is learning to stay on the laughing side.

And here’s the other thing that makes this novel amazing: the character arc. I have trouble thinking of another novel where a character changes so much throughout the course of the book (maybe Larry in The Stand?) yet it still feels realistic and organic to the story. Samantha relives the last day of her life seven times, each day learning more and more, until she turns from “mean girl” into simply a flawed human being:

I shiver, thinking how easy it is to be totally wrong about people-to see one tiny part of them and confuse it for the whole, to see the cause and think it’s the effect or vice versa.

There’s also just the entire tone of the novel. You know she’s going to die, she knows she’s going to die, and there’s such a sad beauty in this, the way she’s noticing things she never noticed before:

I’ve never really thought about it before, but it’s a miracle how many kinds of light there are in the world, how many skies: the pale brightness of spring, when it feels like the whole world’s blushing; the lush, bright boldness of a July noon; purple storm skies and a green queasiness just before lightning strikes and crazy multicolored sunsets that look like someone’s acid trip.

A few quibbles that keep this book from getting a 10/10: the characters of Ally and Elody, her two friends, seemed entirely interchangeable to me. Neither had a distinct personality. And then there’s the same thing that bugged me about Oliver’s other novels: I disliked the ending! But I don’t want to spoil it, since you should definitely still read it.

This book gets a 9/10. Read it!

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