Saturday, July 31, 2010

Book Review: Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

Book: Before I Fall
Author: Lauren Oliver
Published: 2010
Source: Local Library

Samantha Kingston is beautiful, popular, with a gorgeous boyfriend and fabulous besties. Her life seems perfect, until the day it all ended in screaming tires and twisted metal. Then she woke up, into the last day of her life . . . again.

Now Sam is living through the same day over and over, but with the ability to change things. Somehow, she's got to change what led up to that fatal car crash. But to change it, she first must understand it.

What is so appealing about the Groundhog Day structure? It's something about second chances, I think. The ability to do something right this time, or to see what happens if you do something different. Oliver also uses it to explore the consequences of our actions, and how complex that is. Sam is not a particularly nice person. She and her group are the mean girls, the ones who make up the nasty names and decree who's in and who's out. But they're not all nasty all the time. Within their group of four, they are supportive and loving, and Sam has great affection for her parents and little sister. Still, being a nice person to some people doesn't cancel out what you do to others. At the root of the accident that takes Sam's life multiple times are the many-layered consequences of what she and others have done in the past.

Characters unfold gradually. Even though Sam is living through the same day, the same events, in the same pattern, she makes little changes that reveal information to us and cause other characters to reveal information to her. Sometimes this helps with Sam's quest, but more often it helps us to see the same people from different angles, just as Sam is learning to do. This was so effective that I actually worried about what would happen to her friends after Sam was gone. That's an indicator of good characters right there. Her family is less fleshed out, but given that they are less important to the story, I didn't feel the lack.

Okay, I'm gonna be spoilerific here and tell you all that . . .

Last chance to leave.

. . . that Sam does, in fact, die. That what she had to change was not her own death, but someone else's. She had confront the role she had in other people's lives and change it, just a little. Just enough. The final chapter is probably the hardest time I've ever had reading a final chapter. Normally I race through them, wanting to finish, but I kept setting the book down, knowing what was coming. Sam had come to terms with it, but I was struggling, because there were so many good places that her truncated life could go, and knowing that they wouldn't was what brought on the tears. (Overinvested in a book? ME?) Sam goes through a recognizable pattern of denial, grief, anger in dealing with the fact of her own death. Her acceptance of what has to happen at the party is what finally allows her to bring an end to the cycle, not only her own last day, but the cycle of thoughtless actions and cruel consequences that has been hurting others.


Michelle said...

I thought it was such a risky way to end the book. For awhile I thought for sure Sam had done enough to change things and live. I have a great deal of respect for Oliver that she didn't take the easy way out and have that happily ever after ending.

Abby said...

I totally agree with Michelle on the ending. I have great respect (and resigned heartbreak) that she ended it the way that she did.