What happens when you’re dead, but you’re alive, and the world keeps spinning over and over in the same circle?
Publisher: Hodder & Stroughton
Age: Young Adult
First Published: 2nd March 2010
Date Reviewed: 4th June 2010
Lauren Oliver’s debut made the rounds of US book blogs at its release. But it was somewhat more difficult to find in the UK where perhaps we categorise books differently. Never the less there are numerous copies to be found – as long as you know where they are.
Sam Kingston died in a car crash on a cold night in February. She’d spent the day at school: joking with friends, skipping classes, and at a party where she’d joined with everyone in soaking the social outcast with alcohol. She was in the passenger seat when the car crashed, but somehow she never experienced the reported flashbacks on her life, instead waking again in bed the next morning only to find it’s actually the morning of yesterday, the day she died.
The first thing that’s striking is how average the day that Sam lives over and over is. Nothing big happens except for, of course, the accident. But you come to realise that this was good thinking because it allows Oliver to explore different avenues of “what ifs…” and “maybes” in more detail than she could have had she packed out the day with activity. What Oliver does is reveal that initial day – the day of death – in bits and pieces throughout the course of the book so that you learn new things about it as each repetition rumbles on. This means that, in addition to the changes Sam makes, there is plenty to read on for besides the obvious desire to know what will happen at the end.
At the start Sam isn’t the most attractive character, in fact she and her friends are somewhat loathe-worthy. A transformation does happen, but not quite as much as you might have been expecting – Oliver never proposes the idea that Sam should be forgiven for everything nor become a saint. This is a breath of fresh air. So many stories have the character turn 180 degrees and while that may be interesting it’s far too clichéd and overused. Oliver is, actually, quite hard on the character, but it’s subtle, she doesn’t condemn outright but skirts around it issuing ways in which Sam could improve.
As anticipated, with every “new” day Sam aims to conclude differently. She goes through days of happiness, days of giving up, and, interestingly, she knows on the last day that this is the last time she’ll have to relive it, describing how she wants to see and savour things for the last time. Now this is cause for thought – Sam simply knows. But how does she know? Certainly she has come to understand what it is she has to do to get out of the cycle but everything she says confirms the idea that it is definitely her last day, and not just in hindsight but in the way she acts at the time. This would be a good place to stop and consider the spiritual aspect of the book. It may be just that a week is seven days, seven days is a standard, and seven is also the number of days it took God to make the world in the creation stories. And, to ponder on something separate from this, there is the concept of “knowing” when things are going to happen which many people experience. Of “knowing” that if you do something in a certain way something will happen.
The proceedings of the day are important (including all the events that would have gone unnoticed by Sam had she not been given her chance) but it’s the interaction that is paramount. They are pretty regular proceedings for a school but Oliver illustrates how sometimes these seemingly average occurrences can make huge differences to a person’s mental well-being. Bullying is a topic covered in the novel, but again as in the case of Sam’s change of heart, Oliver hasn’t gone overboard. Yes, she shows that the behaviour of one person towards another can cause damage but she also shows that it doesn’t have to be the end of the world and that a lot of it should be taken with a pinch of salt. Sam doesn’t reject her friends even when she realises the huge flaws in their personal qualities – in doing this Oliver reminds us that it’s ok to view things in different ways without changing who you are as drastically as you’d think you’d have to. In addition she looks at the other side of the story to point out that sometimes what is said isn’t meant in the way it’s taken, that people don’t think before they say what they do – but that of course they should.
The relationships are brilliantly handled. Oliver offers all the intimate details of friendship, the secrets, and the lies; and crafts a beautiful story around Sam and the man she loves. Romantic affairs are given a good amount of coverage. This fulfils the basic young adult novel idea of young love but more importantly provides Oliver a place to explore relationships with her audience, the majority of whom will be nearing the time when sex is about to enter their minds constantly.
Oliver delves into the concept of waiting until you are in love before having sex. Had Sam chosen a slightly different path of that first run of her last day she could have lost her virginity. One thinks she might have escaped death but would she have been happy with her sexual outcome? It’s upsetting perhaps, but if Sam hadn’t died and had the experience she did she would never have learned what she did about herself, about others.
The most important theme is personal hardship, living in spite of problems, living with the problems, overcoming them. It ties in with the bullying issue and is on a big scale. It may surprise you to hear that the main character isn’t the subject here.
Something that’s worth mentioning is the language, because unless you’re American, and even if you’re American, odds are you’re going to be stumped by some of the abbreviations and references. In the main brands are easy enough to “get” but culture-specific ones may cause the need for Internet research or, if you can get by without it, a brush past.
A choice quotation:
The sun has just risen, weak and watery-looking, like it has just spilled itself over the horizon and is too lazy to clean itself up.
There are many stand-out scenes and in fact the book as a whole is incredibly memorable, but I would like to highlight one between Sam and a younger student. Set in the old school toilets where no one goes, the location efficiently provides the correct atmosphere of loneliness laced with quirkiness and the metaphorical dirt that comes with slurs on a person’s character.
This reader welcomed the choice made for the ending – you find yourself prepared for all possibilities – but the way it was executed has left her uneasy, she’s still thinking it over a week later. There’s nothing bad about it but it takes some getting used to; at the heart of it is a good message.
Before I Fall is a book that offers a unique challenge: we often shun books that repeat themselves, naturally, but this book is based on repetition. It uses this repetition to aid not only it’s main character but it’s readers in looking at life differently. It offers guidance without guilt, wrapped in a coat of beautiful romance, developing maturity, and bog standard US school life tinted with a slick of coloured lip gloss. You are allowed to feel moved by it, you are allowed to become engrossed in it but you are also allowed to be opposed to it, and you are allowed to take a break from it from time to time. I don’t know about you but to this reader that’s the perfect package.
June 12, 2010, 8:17 pm
I have read many positive reviews of this book and only one negative one so it is on my TBR pile, even though it is geared to YA.
I invite you to visit Colloquium and enter to win a copy of “This One is Mine” by Maria Semple. I loved it (you can read my review) and want to pass it on to another reader who will (hopefully) love it, too! Enter any time up to midnight (Pacific time) June 15, 2010!! The winner will be selected at random!
Charlie: I’m interested in this negative review, I might have to look for it to view the other side’s opinion. I’m afraid I myself can’t enter your contest, I’m from the UK.