Monday, March 11, 2013

Book review: Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

Goodreads summary: What if you only had one day to live? What would you do? Who would you kiss? And how far would you go to save your own life?

Samantha Kingston has it all: looks, popularity, the perfect boyfriend. Friday, February 12, should be just another day in her charmed life. Instead, it turns out to be her last.

The catch: Samantha still wakes up the next morning. Living the last day of her life seven times during one miraculous week, she will untangle the mystery surrounding her death–and discover the true value of everything she is in danger of losing.

There is another blog I read, Forever Young Adult, that is aimed at a crowd they call “a little more A than Y” and serves up (among other things) reviews of YA books. Despite their site slogan, they still have a category for books that fall into the inverse: “a little more Y than A.” That category is where I’d place Before I Fall.

This is not a bad book by any means. In fact, technically speaking, it’s pretty great; but, despite its Groundhog Day conceit and superb character arc, it was difficult for me to enjoy. This is, in part, due to the authenticity with which Oliver captures the adolescent voice, which is one of those technically-speaking “good things” I was talking about. To read such a voice now, though, without any of the trappings of dystopia or paranormal fantasy that so much of popular YA these days revels in, feels uncomfortable and un-relateable. At the beginning of the book, Sam is one of the Mean Girls. She and her three best friends aren’t Mary Sue popular girls who are pretty and smart and also nice — they’re bullies, and they lie, cheat, and steal. We aren’t supposed to like these girls, and Oliver candidly lays their nasty qualities out without any hint of apologia. It’s risky, because she risks alienating readers by giving us a purposefully shallow, vain, and unsympathetic protagonist. And I almost was alienated. Not only was I struggling through the earnestly presented “typical teen issues,” but I was also given a lead who was the kind of person I wouldn’t have cared to befriend, even as a teenager.

But then, somehow, throughout the book, she helps us understand the Mean Girls better. She doesn’t redeem them, per se, but Sam comes to see herself and her friends as others do (“I am a bitch,” she tells one of the girls they bullied, not looking for sympathy or forgiveness, just stating it as a fact.) Another interesting choice that gives the girls dimension is that Oliver fleshes out the quality of their friendships. Many times in the Mean Girls narrative (and indeed, in Mean Girls itself) there is the suggestion that the popular girls wouldn’t even be friends if they weren’t bound by their popularity. Oliver turns that on its head a bit and gives us some moments to suggest that there is real friendship there. Even at the end, when Sam is attempting to fix some of went wrong by way of her being a bitch, she doesn’t disavow her shallow, popular friends; rather, she states things she loves about them, but that she now sees the bad that comes with the good.

All of that is to say: I commend Lauren Oliver’s work here. Reading this was literally like tripping and falling back into high school. The characters and angst felt real, and the conclusion of the book was pretty emotional (I won’t admit to crying, but I was misty for sure.) The question for you, would-be reader, is: do you want to go back to high school? I was neither bullied horribly nor a textbook popular girl, and this was already a difficult enough mindset to get back into, so I can only imagine how it could be to relate to anyone on the extreme ends of the popularity spectrum as described here. The book is a quick read, but it’s an emotional investment.

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