Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver
From the book blurb on Goodreads:
For popular high school senior Samantha Kingston, February 12—”Cupid Day”—should be one big party, a day of valentines and roses and the privileges that come with being at the top of the social pyramid. And it is…until she dies in a terrible accident that night.
However, she still wakes up the next morning. In fact, Sam lives the last day of her life seven times, until she realizes that by making even the slightest changes, she may hold more power than she ever imagined.
I love to read YA fiction, but there aren’t many of them that stick with with me. Too often in contemporary YA novels, the entire story entails a static character reacting and problem solving themselves out of a string of bad situations. If I get to the end of a story and feel like the main character is exactly the way he started . . . as if the string of unfortunate events the character went through did nothing to change him other than to prove just how badass he is, then no matter how exciting the story may have been while reading it, I forget it about five minutes after setting it down. It may have been a page-turner, but it’s the stories about the human condition (not just the adventures they go through) that stick with me.
Before I Fall is one of those–a story about the human condition. It’s a story in which the troubles the protagonist needs to overcome are caused by her own character flaws and human weaknesses. A story in which, if she is to triumph at the end, she must do the really excruciating work of changing her own inner character (not just kick the bad guy’s ass).
I finished Before I Fall and couldn’t stop thinking about it. Days . . . months later. It ties with A Monster Calls for my favorite novels in 2017.
When the book begins, it’s easy to dislike Samantha, the main character. There’s no other way to describe her other than that she’s a bully . . . a bitch. A really mean girl. In fact, she’s so self-centered and vile that it’s hard to feel sorry for her at the end of the first chapter when she dies in a car accident.
But it doesn’t stay that way for long. In each of the subsequent chapters, the complexity of relationships, characters, and the human condition are pulled back like layers of an onion, and we get a clearer understanding of Samantha and the effect her actions have on the people around her.
The characters in this book are superbly done. There is no one in this story (among the bullies or the targets or the bystanders) that are all-good or all-bad. As Emily May states in her review of this book on Goodreads,
Every character is handled with sympathy, turning mean girls, losers and geeks into human beings, each with their own story.
And as Heather states in her review of this novel,
Rather, I felt this story allowed readers to realize that there is depth to us all, even the bitches and we all have thoughts that should shame us. The character development of all the characters was astounding, and the character growth, drastic though it may be, was entirely believable.
And it’s character growth that makes or breaks a book for me, I think. The character has to change . . . has to overcome a weakness of some kind in her own personality, not just overcome the unfortunate scenarios thrown at her by the author. Samantha definitely overcomes weakness of character. Through the course of the story, she finally understands the effects her actions have on others, and this experience changes her so completely that what begins as a quest to figure out how to change her own destiny and save her own life becomes more about sacrificing herself to save others around her. And ironically, it’s sacrificing herself for others that finally sets her free. It’s such a touching ending that I still can’t get out of my head.
It’s rare to find a book like this. And, yes, I know I said the same thing when I reviewed A Monster Calls. But both, though very different from each other, are superb stories. Before I Fall has more mature scenes and is intended for an older teen audience. A Monster Calls is suitable for a younger crowd. Both of them are so wonderfully done that adults would enjoy reading them, too. Each is an example of why I think reading is important . . . it teaches teens (and adults) about the human condition. Stories are powerful enough to change us. And these two stories certainly can do that.