Before I Fall

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver is a rather fitting read around Groundhog Day or even February 12th, as that's the date the book focuses on. Before I briefly summarize the premise (in very short detail), I want to note I knew only vague things about Before I Fall prior to reading it; I'd simply been encouraged by multiple people to get going already and jump on the bandwagon. Quite honestly, I think that's the way to go. If you enjoy thoughtful YA lit with a well-developed female narrator where you're destined for a study of relationships with family, friends, and boys and the only "paranormal" element is an odd twist in time, then you will enjoy Lauren Oliver's debut novel. Don't spoil it, just start reading.

For those who need more, here we go. Samantha Kingston dies on February 12th after a fairly average day that includes school, hanging out with her popular friends, and attending a party given at the house of an odd boy that Sam knows has had a crush on her for years. On the way home from the party, she and her friends are in a car accident... but then, she wakes up in her own bed to find that it is once again February 12th. As she repeats the day again and again, each time a bit differently from the time before, she learns more about people around her, takes the time to reach different conclusions, and discovers that even a day is time enough to make important decisions.

Obviously, the reader can couch this in terms like "the YA lit version of the film, Groundhog Day," and the book doesn't deny it -- Sam herself even references the movie early on. As a result, while reading this, I worried for the sustainability of the idea... just what would make this day worth repeating? How would we avoid the potential boredom? Sam and her friends are initially presented as simple, self-involved popular girls (perhaps the "self-involved" bit rather goes without saying in high school)... and the end of the book, they're still self-involved popular girls, but they're far from simple. The book does an excellent job of showing that everyone has their issues and insecurities without totally absolving their poor behavior when it comes to how they treat other students (and even how they treat one another). These girls become fascinating, not necessarily for the justifications given for their actions, but for the fact that even without the small personal traumas that have shaped them, they are genuinely appealing -- the reader understands their pull and how others would want to be part of such a select group. They populate a charmed role in the high school hierarchy and even if you might not really want to be friends with them in real life, one comes to understand that they have friendships just like everyone else.

The book is geared towards an older teen audience, for very limited judgment is given out to things like sex, underage drinking, smoking, suicide, and driving under the influence. Having been rather sheltered and apparently very naive, I'm always a bit surprised at some of the things that I was totally oblivious to during high school (and I went to a Catholic all-girls school, so you know that stuff happened all around). It is, however, given the feel of something that could be a very real high school experience and as such, you credit Oliver with creating (or re-counting, perhaps) such a believable scene. Crazy, yes, but not out of the realm of possibility. Sam learns her lessons awfully quickly (with far greater speed than Bill Murray), but the reader accepts there is a lot of good in her, buried in allegiances to friends rather than a simple clawing desire to be popular. The blossoming love between Sam and a boy is charming and tragic as days start anew and progress is dashed. It's easy to cheer her on and feel deeply conflicted about the ultimate decisions that must be made, not in the sense that one doubts Oliver's direction, but because one quickly realizes that not everything can end well for every single person in the story. The ending is a brave one -- and perhaps made me like Oliver even more than I already did, for going ahead and sticking with something that isn't all that common in popular young adult literature, but I think readers will be pleased in a bittersweet way. One thing is for sure -- Lauren Oliver is a heck of a new writer to watch and I'm sure we'll be getting many fascinating and well-written tales from her for a long time.

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