Saturday, March 31, 2012

Review: BEFORE I FALL by Lauren Oliver

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.
On February 12, Cupid Day, Sam has a great day. She gets the last parking spot at school, gets roses from different admirers (including her boyfriend, the very popular Rob), flirts with her handsome math teacher, and gets sloppy drunk at an amazing party. And on the way home, she dies. The car she and her friends are in swerves to avoid hitting something in the road and goes careening into the woods. There's pain and lights... and then nothing.

She wakes up the next morning in her bed, terrified but relieved. It was only a dream. But it's still Cupid Day. Her friends are still teasing her about her plans to have sex with Rob, she gets the same roses from the same people, but other things are changed. Little things. It's the same day, and it's all happening again.

Let's be clear here. This is not Groundhog Day. There are hilarious moments, but this isn't a book about wish fulfillment (though Sam does try that route on one of her seven days) or even just being a better person.

Sam is a Mean Girl, capital M capital G. She is, as she is told many times in the book, a female canine (obviously, I'm paraphrasing), and she's proud of it. Her three best friends, Lindsay, Elody, and Ally, are just as bad. In many cases, they can be worse, but it's okay. They're Seniors. They're cool. They're not losers like Anna Cartullo, the slut cheating with another girl's boyfriend, or clueless freshies, or psychos like Juliet, the girl forever known as Mello Yello after she wet her sleeping bag in elementary school.

I can be such a lazy reader sometimes. This kind of character I want to be ripped down and pointed to as a Bad Example. I don't want to be in their heads, and I don't want to hear them rationalize their own behavior. But that's what Sam does, because we're in her thoughts. She doesn't see what she's doing to others as bad, so why should we?

Lauren Oliver is a master of letting us figure out things for ourselves. We aren't beaten over the head with the severity of Sam's choices. There is no scolding. We aren't being hit on the hand with a ruler and being told, "Bad bad bad! Don't do this!" And it works. Obviously, as an adult, I'm horrified by the behaviors I see Sam and her troupe celebrating. But would a teenager be? Maybe. If anything, the rubbernecking factor might keep them reading.

Oliver also chronicles the inner workings of the teen social scene fairly realistically (I'll get to the "fairly" later). To me, the voices felt pretty spot on, from Sam & Co.'s Valley Girl talk, to Rob's sleazy boy mutters, to Sam's little sister's lisping giggles. The social hierarchies, the obsession with being popular, the perks of being popular (only popular people know about the parties, the ways to get around the teachers, the secret hideaways), even the different cliques present. And yes, Oliver mentions those cliques in a pretty non-standard way. There's not a cheerleader in sight.

The progression of the story was remarkably realistic as well. After the very first car crash, we as readers acknowledge the likelihood of Sam's death. Pain and a bright light? Yep, death or coma for sure. But not Sam. To her, it's a dream. It's gotta be a dream. And if it isn't, well, maybe a really light coma, because OMG, wouldn't that be so, like dramatic? She's a teenager. In her mind, she's invincible. Death is what happens to old people or ugly people or at least not HER. Even when she does start to think that maybe... maybe... well, even then, that can't be all.

Despite myself, I found myself rooting for her. This mean, callous, unthinking little jerk got under my skin, and do you know why? Because Oliver doesn't leave her as a jerk. She doesn't leave anyone as a total jerk, but she doesn't leave anyone pristinely perfect either. Through the book, different characters are lifted up for inspection. The saints are smudged and made more human, while the jerks, freaks, and villains are deepened and explored. There aren't blatant sob stories. This isn't a PBS special. But characters that I despised I ended up sympathizing with and understanding a little better.

Don't get me wrong, there were still things that made me scowl. I didn't like the language, the sexual content, the drinking, and the drugs, but I understood why they were a part of Sam's world. What I really didn't like was the unstated assumption that these things are all normal, an assumption that was never contradicted. Illegal, harmful things like underage drinking, drinking and driving, and doing pot is not okay, and they're not things that were ever part of my life or my friends lives (and I'm not that old, people, I swear I'm not). And maybe I'm the only freaky little misfit in the entire world who had (has!) a great, open relationship with her family members, because the book sure frames it like I am.

But I liked the book despite it all, because Before I Fall made me think. How have my words, my actions, affected the people around me? If I could see those consequences, would I want to change them? If I had to die in some way other than peaceful old age, how would I want to go? If I could plan my last day on Earth, how would I spend it? Man, those last two tore me up. There are two little sisters in the story who suffer similar losses in different days, little girls who reminded me of my own baby sister, down to their sweet smiles and infectious spirits.

Before I Fall made me ugly-cry. I can't promise a perfect, Disney ending, because it doesn't happen. I'm even too cynical to fully accept that things magically change after the last page. But some things do change. Some things do get better, both in specific people and in general circumstances. There's hope, because as Sam says, hope is what keeps us alive, and it's never too late.

Points Added For: Intricate, interweaving threads; innocent little sisters; parents that eventually DO make an appearance; a twist that made me gasp; not tying everything up; not making the supposed villains unsympathetic witches; not fixing every little thing; making me cry.

Points Subtracted For: Normalizing excessively deviant and dysfunctional social patterns; waaaay too many broken families; making me cry.

Good For Fans Of: Delirium by same author, Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher, If I Stay by Gayle Forman (all Amazon's idea, because my contemporary fiction knowledge is still pretty weak).

Notes For Parents: Excessively severe language, underage drinking, illegal drug use, cigarette use, theft, numerous squeamish sexual situations.

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