Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver
I picked up Lauren Oliver’s first novel because I had so enjoyed her latest two, Delirium and Pandemonium. Before I Fall is a more typical YA book than her recent dystopia novels because it’s set in a normal high school, with bullying, popularity, and romance as primary topics. The twist is Groundhog Day: about 80 pages into the book, the main character, Sam, dies, and then she relives the day of her death until she “gets it right.”
Sam and her friends are typical “mean girls.” The book falls into a recently popular anti-bullying genre. Jay Asher, author of another popular YA book that focuses on bullying and suicide, is the cover blurb. This genre has some limitations, like a tendency to stereotype and black-and-white morality, but Oliver mostly avoids the worst of these. It’s good to see Sam change and rethink the people around her, from her shallow boyfriend to her victims to her teachers. One weakness may be the character of Lindsay, the clique’s leader and Sam’s best friend. She is shown to be flawed and insecure, taking out her issues on less popular kids, but even after Sam is more enlightened, she still doesn’t ever really call Lindsay out on her bullying because she’s just so magnetic and fun to be with.
The structure of the relived day allowed Oliver to concentrate on the things that changed based on Sam’s actions, and a few of the days even had themes that seemed to determine everything that happened: avoidance, “nothing matters,” “bucket list,” and finally acceptance. Oliver keeps readers guessing until the last minute whether doing the right thing will result in Sam’s survival or her death.
Sam’s tone and voice rang true to me for a teenage character, especially because it changed as she became more empathetic. There was a bit of the brand-name-dropping that I wrote a rant about once, but it made a big difference that a first-person narrator character was doing it instead of an omniscient narrator, that the brands were middle-high end instead of obscenely expensive designers, and that the references were 3 per chapter instead of 3 per page. It made sense that Sam would sometimes think about these brands; they became a touch of realism. There was a good amount of humor, but in the moments when the gravity of her situation hit her, Sam was insightful and used language well. She even described kissing in mostly non-cliched ways.
Before I Fall is an enjoyable book for anyone who likes YA novels. There’s romance, female friendship, a compelling plot, character development, and a strong ending. I think I prefer Oliver’s more recent dystopian efforts, but I’m glad I read this one too.