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Before I Fall is one of the best novels released in the last year. Although it is classified as a Young Adult book, it quickly transcends that category. It is narrated by Samantha Kingston, a high school senior, and she starts off her story describing a car accident that kills her. Then she tells us about the day that leads up to that accident. Sam is a popular girl, and it soon becomes clear she is also a mean girl. Her best friend is Lindsay, the school's most popular and meanest girl, who is both charismatic and is not only self-centered but also very hurtful to several other girls in the school. We find out about Sam's relationship with her boyfriend Rob -- they have been together for several months and they are planning to have sex for the first time that night. Her other friends Ally and Elody spend the day teasing her about it. They are all preoccupied with how many roses they will receive that day at school, because it is the Cupid Day, which serves to show who the most popular people are, and also who is unpopular. In their most cruel act, the girls continue their tradition of sending a single rose to a girl they hate, Juliet Sykes, just to remind her that she has no friends. That night everyone in the story goes to a party held by a boy that Sam and her friends think of as a freak, and there's plenty of drama as Sam interacts with everyone who is important to her. Coming home from that party, Sam dies in the car crash.
That's just the first chapter. Before going on, I should warn readers that I'll reveal some essential plot details, that I didn't know those plot details before I read the book, and I enjoyed the book all the more for its surprises. So if you haven't read it, and think you might want to, then read no further, and also don't read the Amazon.com reader reviews, which also spoil the surprise. Suffice to say, this is a philosophically rich work that raises questions of character, responsibility, free will, tragedy and love. It is very clever, fast paced, and gripping, despite its length -- about 470 pages or 12.5 hours of unabridged audiobook.
So here come the spoilers. After dying on the Friday night, Sam wakes up again the next morning, very confused about her memory of the day before, only to find that it is Friday again. She goes through the day again, with some differences, getting more and more worried about avoiding getting into a car accident that night, but she finds that her efforts don't work. She dies again. The next morning, she wakes to find it is Friday again. At this stage, she realizes that she is in a Groundhog Day sort of scenario, and she starts to realize she has to take more major steps to avoid the same outcome. But she discovers that simply avoiding the party does not work, because then someone else dies. Sam also starts to realize that what she thought she knew about people is actually all wrong. Through repeating her day and finding out about how different ways of acting in the same situation leads to different results, and how for some things, no matter what she does, people act in the same way.
One of her first realizations is that her boyfriend Rob does not love her and that their relationship lacks something important. She also starts to see how her best friends are inconsiderate and nasty, and that she has radically underestimated other people at school. She talks with some of the people that she formerly dismissed, and discovers she has a lot in common with them. One day, she expresses her anger at her friends and criticizes them to their faces, but it does not go well, so Sam comes to understand that the solution is not to give up on her current friends. They are friends, and there is an explanation for why they are so mean. Sam starts to take a longer view, and to rethink her priorities. She spends some time with her little sister and her parents, and she loves the time they have together. She falls in love with another boy, and has an amazing kiss with him. Before I Fall has more transcendent romance in its little finger than the whole of the latest Nora Roberts.
By the end of the story, Sam has gone through a major personality change, and her friends hardly recognize her. She has looked at her past, realizing how it became so important for her to become popular, and how she was willing to sacrifice other friendships to achieve that. When the most popular girl around, Lindsay, offered her friendship, Sam grabbed it. Sam also finds out much more about Lindsay's past, especially how she was hurt by her parents' divorce. Lindsay is desperate to remain popular, and is terrified by any threats to that, so she will cut down anyone who could hurt her. Lindsay has done most damage to her former friend Juliet Sykes, and Sam realizes that it is Juliet who is crucial to her release. At first her attempts to help and befriend Juliet are clumsy and so are bound to fail. Finally, she works out a way to help, but it comes at great cost.
The unabridged audiobook is read by Sarah Drew who does a great job at keeping the different characters separate, and manages to give some humanity to even the most obnoxious of Sam's friends. It's an impressive performance. In the days I was in the middle of listening to the book, I found my perception of events became changed, and I half thought that the next time I go through an encounter, I'll do it different. Before I Fall argues that it is possible to change what happens, but that it is hard to control all the random factors that impact on the future, so controlling the future is very difficult. The book ends on a slightly mystical note, which doesn't necessarily sit well with the rest of the novel, but it is appropriately climactic.
Before I Fall is a profoundly moral novel that should appeal to not just young readers, but all readers who enjoy stories addressing choice and personality. Highly recommended.
· Before I Fall webpage
· HarperAudio webpage
© 2010 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York