by Lauren Oliver
480 pages, HarperCollins
Review by S.F. Winser
So I read a lot of junior fiction and YA. It's one of the perks and/or hazards of being the youngest librarian in a branch. Almost by default, you end up one of the Young Adult experts. Of course, my personal tastes didn't hurt in this – I read anything, anyhoo, age-label or not. This would have been the case whatever my relative age.
But I've often lamented that I don't read enough girl-stuff. I have no issues recommending books for teen and pre-teen boys, but the teen oestrogen-brigade are a more problematic issue for me once we move outside straight fantasy or sexytime-vampires. So my manager (who does read YA girl-stuff) thrusts this into my hand. “It's had some good reviews. I read it because the premise is interesting. Tell me what you think. You DO need to read more 'girl-stuff'.”
So dutiful librarian, model employee, curious individual, I do so.
The premise is interesting. Or dumb. Or one of those. A young teenaged girl is killed at the end of a very bad day...
...and wakes up that morning, freaked out. And has to live the day over again. And again. And again and again. It's the Bill Murray comedy 'Groundhog Day' as Dramatic Teen Novel.
I was already ambiguous about this. I deliberately didn't read even the back cover, so realising the central conceit early-on was both a revelation and a disappointment. What made this ambiguity more intense (can one have an intense ambiguity?) was the set up of the main character. She's a popular girl. A mean-girl. A bitch. She's distinctly unlikable. This is only the beginning of the problems because once you put these two things together to get the idea 'Bitch who must relive her last day' then anyone with half a brain-cell can already see the point of the novel will be her eventual redemption. Yay. Bored already. A potentially problematic premise, a protatag who pisses me off and a predictable plot progression. Please!
So why the hell did I enjoy this so much?
Is it just my unfamiliarity with the female-teen literaturescape resulting in being easily shocked by anything resembling quality? I'm not THAT unversed, just less well-read in that area than I like.
I think it's because, once the hurdle of the first few pages is leapt, we have a lovely psychological progression in the main character. The redemption isn't a clean ride. One of the interesting aspects is the fact that, by the end, mean-girl doesn't become a true goody-goody, just a better person. And the ways she changes are as much reactions to her own actions and their consequences as they are to the wider world. She changes because she learns, because she reacts to those around her and – just as endearingly – she becomes introspective enough to start reacting to her own psychology and emotions. She does things differently on different days, not just to get a different outcome but because she is feeling grateful for kind actions that the people involved now technically never performed, or because she feels guilty for actions she no longer actually took, since the slate was wiped clean the night before. But even though she is smart enough to recognise this, she becomes driven to be better towards these people anyway.
One thing I absolutely loved was the writing. It's well above average and – astoundingly – Oliver manages to make every repetitive day unique in itself. She takes the same moments and squeezes nice insights from them on different days. She is often forced to describe the exact same scene or room, but she does so with just the right mix of similarity and freshness.
The way the plot progresses is interesting structurally, as well. The changes from the first painful transition to the final one are quite graceful. A rather sweet love story played out over the course of a single day, where only one partner really remembers it all, is nice. The way the different lives and actions interact – the intertwined nature of all the little problems and subplots – is really well handled: It shows how little we can understand not only the consequences of our actions, but sometimes the causes of them. Humans are complicated creatures with complicated lives that impact each other in ways that only someone living the same day over and over could hope to guess at. Even here, the protagonist still only manages to tease out some of the deeper threads between and around herself, her classmates and their families. The protag is like a little emotional sleuth, uncovering and fixing problems like they're pieces of an enormous puzzle, all the while trying to figure out a way to understand what the hell is happening to her and trying to fix THAT as well. I especially love that she eventually realises that there are some problems that are not possible to solve and, even though she has been a nasty bitch, not all the world's problems were her fault in the first place.
There are big teen themes here about personal interactions, and there's a heavy helping of underage-drinking, sex, drugs and hip-hop. (Basically, the book seems to be set in the high-school I went to, but in a richer neighbourhood and in the wrong country – all of these teen-themes were well-handled and spot-on as to realism). So this is a definite mid-to-older teen book.
The fact that the protag is actually one of the followers rather than the Queen Bitch stops her being completely two-dimensional at the beginning, but she starts out very close to cardboard. By the end, she's properly fleshed out and mostly believable. The other issue being that while she grows as a person her friends don't (they too are all more three dimensional and believable by the end, but the friends remain bitches and the ring-leader remains a sociopath – making the protag's love for them less and less believable as she changes and they don't).
This is an excellent book with a very good ending and a great middle, let down by a difficult beginning. I was not 'won over' my initial doubts – the quality of the elements of the book actually change from passable to above average. Oliver does not start the novel well. I have not changed my assessment of the beginning. Compared to what follows, it's simply not as great. It's a bit difficult to say that a rewrite would easily have fixed this issue. It's not an easy (theoretical) fix, since the progression of the novel flows from the set up of the plot-conceit and the character. But a bit more elegance in this area would not have been missed.
Once the reader is past that, however, Before I Fall becomes a lovely book well worth anyone's effort. I'm gonna have to read even more 'girl-stuff', if there's more out there this good.