Tuesday, May 31, 2011

In Which Trai Reviews 'Before I Fall'

The Book: Before I Fall

The Author: Lauren Oliver

How I Found It: It was getting exceptional reviews for a YA book and I decided to make it the first library ebook I'd read on my wonderful Kobo TARDIS.

The Review: "The point is, we can do things like that. You know why? Because we're popular. And we're popular because we can get away with everything. So it's circular." (14)

Sam, Ally, Elody, and Lindsay are the best of friends... and the best of bullies at their high school. It's their senior year and their main concern on a Friday in February is Cupid Day, where students receive roses from their friends and admirers. Everybody knows that the ones who get the most roses are the most popular, and to Sam and her friends, popularity is paramount.

Everything comes to an end that night. Driving home from a party, Sam and her friends get into a hideous accident, and Sam is killed. No matter what kind of person she was, Sam tells us, surely we don't think she deserved to die that way? Maybe not, but it can't be denied that Sam has done some truly terrible things to people over the years.

Sam is dead... but then why is she waking up again, reliving the events of that Friday? It slowly becomes evident that Sam is in a Groundhog Day-style time loop, reliving that Friday seven times until she figures out why she has been given this last chance to right her wrongs. Is it so she can finally lose her virginity to her boyfriend Rob? Or is it because she's starting to realize that maybe she was wrong to ignore her childhood friend Kent McFuller? Is it because she has to mend her relationship with her family? And what part does a bullied girl named Juliet Sykes play in everything? Sam's seven final days will involve all these things, and in the end, she just might emerge from them a better person.

I've said before that I love ripple-effect stories: stories where we get to witness the effect one person's actions have on numerous other people. This was just what I wanted. Oliver does a great job with not being too repetitive as Sam repeats the day. Each day is almost completely different, and I loved those little variables that kept changing. For example, if Sam and her friends cut off a girl to get the last parking space, that girl is late to swim practice and not allowed to participate in a big competition, so the next time Sam lives that day, she purposely stalls her friend so that the girl can get the parking space. Or Sam and Lindsay's actions or inaction have the potential to expose a male classmate as a cheater to his girlfriend. I give Oliver credit for really keeping track of the characters and exploring different facets of their personalities on different days.

Of the four main girls, the two we get the most of are Sam and Lindsay. I think I remember reading something where Oliver said that she didn't expect, nor want, the reader to love Sam in the end, but to at least understand why Sam might've become a bully. As someone who was bullied myself in middle and high school, I didn't expect to like Sam, but I came to care about her redemption in the end, and I could at least see that it often wasn't Sam's actions that led to the bullying of others--it was her inaction, her refusal to do anything about her friends treating others poorly. It's not excusable, but the other three girls are so strong-willed that it's at least understandable that she wouldn't stand up to them, for fear of losing friends who were at least decent to her if nobody else.

Although the friendship between the four girls is admittedly based on some terrible things, I appreciated that Oliver showed how the girls genuinely did care for each other and protect each other's feelings. There are two sides to these girls: the intensely bitchy, bullying sides, and the vulnerable sides, the sides that hold the secrets they have promised to keep. Each girl has some kind of dark past, either with bullying or family issues, and it never felt overwrought, just realistic. These girls are all somehow damaged and, maybe because of that, seek to take their feelings out on others. As I said before, it doesn't excuse their actions in the least, but it at least made them seem human.

Sam's efforts to fix her actions and mend her relationships with both family and virtual strangers in her school were really well done. Of all the days, I think my favorite was when she skipped school to spend time with her little sister; as a little sister myself, I was really touched by that, and it made me admire Sam for showing enough growth to care about her family's feelings. Even so, Sam reaching out to her classmates showed how far her actions had reached, and how many people her and her friends' bullying had effected. Often, someone will ask Sam why she's talking to them when she bullied them in the past, and when they give her an example, Sam often won't remember it happening. Bullying is shown to be something thoughtless but pervasive, and I think this would be an important read for all teenagers. Though there is, of course, drinking and sexual content for the sake of realism, I think it would be a valuable addition to summer reading lists. A lot could be learned from Sam's path to redemption.

In the end, my main complaint with the book was that no explanation was given for how Sam was living the day over and over. We learn why--what the purpose for it was--but not how. I understand that this is not the type of book that would give the answer, that it would probably get too metaphysical with an explanation, but for a book that was otherwise entirely realistic, an unexplained fantastical element being the main premise left me a little confused.

I'd definitely recommend this one for both young adults and their parents. There is a lot of insight here into bullying and the high school experience, and I hope that others can take away some sort of lesson from Sam and her experiences.

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