Publisher: Harper Collins, March 2010
Genre: Young Adult
My Rating: 4 stars
I’ve dipped my toe into Young Adult books before and haven’t always been satisfied. Either the plotting felt too contrived or the emotions didn’t relate to me (being a very very old woman in my 40s). But when a blogger you respect gushes about a Young Adult book, you think “Well, I have to give it a try.” So, after Jill from Rhapsody in Books (in case you were too lazy to click on the link to “a blogger I respect”) went nutso about Before I Fall, I dutifully requested it from the library. But before I tell you what I thought of the book (I know you’re wondering, Jill … be patient), let me tell you what the book is about.
The Basic Story
Samantha (Sam) Kingston is one of the four most popular girls at Thomas Jefferson High in affluent Ridgeview, Connecticut. As seniors, she and her friends Lindsay (the Queen Bee), Elody (the Cheerful Drunk), and Ally (Rich but Dumb) are at the top of the social food chain. And in the dog-eat-dog world of high school, being at the top of the food chain is everything.
The day our story begins is February 12—also known as Cupid Day. It is the day when popularity is demonstrated for everyone to see in the form of roses, which are delivered throughout the day. (A side note: Can you really imagine a high school that would let this type of thing take place? Am I naive? It seemed like such an invitation to pain and heartbreak.) Aside from Cupid Day, the day is also a big one for Sam because she’s decided to lose her virginity to her boyfriend Rob that night.
As the day goes along, we see Sam’s day unfold—her flirtation with her math teacher, her teasing of Juliet Sykes (the school “psycho”), her casual dismissal of a childhood friend who is having a party later that night, her pre-party drinking with her friends. That night, Sam finds herself at the big party—nervous and anxious about having sex for the first time. But things don’t quite go as expected, and Sam finds herself leaving the party with the girls instead. However as they careen down the rain-soaked roads, something happens and the car barrels off the side of the road and then…
… Sam wakes up, in her bed, on February 12. Cupid Day. The day she just lived … and seemed to have died on. In what becomes a teen version of Groundhog Day, Sam relives February 12th over and over for an entire week— making changes in a frantic attempt to alter the outcome of her story. But as February 12 replays again and again, Sam begins to see her life, her friends, and the people around her differently. Can she make the changes she needs to save herself ?
OK, Jill, I’ll put you out of your misery: I really liked the book. I stayed up way later than I should have reading it, but I have so many thoughts spinning around so bear with me while I ramble.
First off, the writing feels very natural for a teenage narrator. It was easy to get into Sam’s world because Lauren Oliver makes it come alive. Even though I felt that I probably would have disliked a girl like Sam if I went to school with her, Oliver gives her enough uncertainty and awareness about herself that she is a sympathetic character—becoming even more so as the “scales fall from her eyes” and she begins to see the truth and complexity of the people around her.
Unlike so many Young Adult books, this one actually did take me back to those awful teenage years. I wasn’t a girl like Sam by a long shot (I would have dreaded an event like Cupid Day), but I do believe that every high school has the same basic social structure. I remember the Sams and Lindsays of my own high school, as well as the feeling of being on the periphery of things. There is such a need to feel like you fit in and are popular—even when the cost of doing so is do things you don’t feel good about inside.
Yet Sam is relatable because she wasn’t always one of the popular girls. She tells of being plucked from social obscurity by Lindsay for reasons she still isn’t clear about. The dynamic between Sam and Lindsay is one of the most interesting in the book, and I found myself feeling conflicted about how I felt about Lindsay. Oliver did a wonderful job of shedding light on her character … of showing you how the monster that we see in the book evolved and how, deep down, she is really a hurt little girl inside. Yet it is hard to accept the casual cruelty that Linsday, Sam, Elody and Ally dish out to all those around them.
One aspect of the book that gave me pause was when Sam starts having doubts about her boyfriend Rob and begins seeing an old childhood friend in a new light. It made me wonder if my own Little One would some day freeze out a child he plays with so happily today—forgetting all the happy moments they shared when they were little and kid society was kinder and more forgiving. It made me wonder how all these little kids that happily dig holes in our back yard together will be behaving in a few short years.
Another thing that kind of freaked me out was realizing how much “bad” stuff teenagers do. From the drinking to the smoking to the sex, I realized I’m not ready to send my Little One out into this world now … or ever. I was always a bit of a Ms. Goody Two Shoes in school (surprise! surprise!), but even I knew that teens drank and did drugs and had sex. Yet the grown-up me is so horrified by the behavior in this book that I feel about 1,000 years old. I imagine that reading this book with a tween or teenage could open up a floodgate of topics for discussion.
Well, I’m losing my way here and starting to wander down memory lane but this is the kind of book this is; it puts you right there, smack dab, in the mind of a teenager … and what a confusing, angsty place that can be. It was fascinating to follow Sam on her journey and I, for one, was rooting for her to find a way out of her nightmare. The way Lauren Oliver guides Sam through it was so well done and the ending so fitting and right that I felt like standing up and clapping when I finished the book.
My Final Recommendation
With a gripping premise that lives up to its promise, Before I Fall is one of the few Young Adult books that I thought got it right. If you’re an older reader, this book will take you back to your own teenage years and you’ll find yourself hoping and praying that Sam figures things out. If you are a young adult (or have one in your life), my guess is you will find a lot of food for thought as Sam struggles to make sense of her world. It isn’t a journey you’ll soon forget. Make time for this one!
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