Before I Fall
After having found so much pleasure in Liesl and Po, I wanted to read more by Lauren Oliver and while the different target audience of Before I Fall made me afraid that I wouldn’t be as wowed by her acclaimed debut novel, I was quickly proven wrong and sucked into the story of Sam Kingston’s final day.
Sam Kingston is part of the popular crowd at her local high school and she’s a bitch. And she dies. Again and again. Reliving the same day, the day she dies, seven times, trying to figure out how to survive to the next day, how to go into the light and stay dead, hoe to change her fate, how to change the outcome of events for other people.
As more layers of her personality are uncovered, we learn how Same became the apparently shallow and self-centred queen bee she is today. While your usual YA heroine is self-conscious and seemingly blind to all the love and admiration directed at her by EVERYONE she encounters, Sam is only liked and accepted by a very small crowd of people, despite being one of the “most popular” girls at her school. “Popular” translates as “most feared” here. In fact, most of the other kids are terrified by her and her friends and actually hate her, but everyone knows her and that is what really counts above all. Never mind the underlying reasons for the girls’ aggressive meanness, their own insecurities which they try to cover up by instilling fear in others (fear=power), it’s uncanny how no one even makes an attempt to stop the in-crowd’s reign of terror.
Sam is no perfect, well-meaning heroine. Thanks to Oliver’s extraordinary narrative technique, we see how and why Sam changed from a bully’s victim to an uncaring high-school queen, and we experience her struggles to change again. It is sometimes frustrating to see her stumble through her last chances, but I grew to love Sam exactly for all her imperfections.
Sam grows a lot in her final day. She realises that she is indeed a real bitch and that there is no justification for her past behaviour. In time, she gets over her low self-esteem and dares to stand up against those she had followed blindly despite her better judgment, and to voice a differing opinion. But it takes time for her to realise what drove her to become the bitch she is now and confront her own and her friends’ interpersonal shortcomings. She tries to make amends, fails, tries again, fails again, is ready to give up (but the “groundhog day” structure of the story renders this a more or less futile notion), is frustrated, angry, confused, tries again…
And I was never bored. Sometimes I was wriggling with impatience at Sam’s choices but since that’s the learning she has to complete and I chose to follow her along her way, I had to gnash my teeth and hope for the next day. I was often dissatisfied with her action, or inaction, or really her character and personality, but I never lost faith in Sam’s “getting there.”
Lauren Oliver does not gloss over Sam’s shallow, egotistical traits. She has Sam reveal the most unflattering things about herself without sugar-coating them. It’s a very honest narrative with less of the usual teenage self-deception and self-flattery. Despite the many things to dislike about Sam, I rooted for her finding a satisfying way out of the misery that February 12 is for her. I, for one, while a bit disappointed at the lack of real redemption for any of the characters (curse my soft heart!), I ultimately found the ending appropriate and satisfying. A happy ending would have diminished the gravity of the story.
Lauren Oliver shows and exceptional talent when using simple language to manipulate the reader’s emotional reaction. I was almost moved to tears at time.