Full disclosure: I put off reading this one for a really long time because I didn’t think I was going to like it. The premise—which could sort of be described as Groundhog Day meets Mean Girls (popular girl dies, only to relive the same day over and over again while learning to be a better person)—struck me as being at high risk for rampant sentimentality, complete with Lessons Learned, and even as a little kid, I was pretty resistant to cautionary tales and anything that smacked of after-school-special.
And then when I finally picked it up, I was duly chastened, because instead of being not my thing at all, it turned out to be exactly my thing.
For those who haven’t read it, Before I Fall is kind of a strange beast. Oliver combines a bunch of elements I really like, but don’t often see happily coexisting together. Even though the central device is thoroughly fantastical, this is a book that reads 100% like contemporary realism, (which is one of my favorite genres). The depictions of daily life are fully articulated and lovingly mundane, and the complex social interactions of the characters are the most important part of the story. The fact that our narrator is reliving the same day over and over again is not The Point, but rather, a way to get a really good look at the precarious dynamics of high school social schemas.
Before I Fall is widely acknowledged to be a book about mean girls. However, I’d make the case that Sam, the main character, is not a prototypical mean girl. At the outset of the story, she’s definitely a weak girl, but there’s nothing sadistic about her, which I think is in keeping with the realities of bullying—meaning that most people who act in antisocial ways are not sadistic. Rather, they’re bad at propelling themselves through society in a way that doesn’t damage or exploit others, and also prone to hitching themselves to those vicious few who have no reservations about using power like a weapon.
When I talked about The Big Crunch last week , I was mostly interested in what that book could have told teenage-me about myself. With Before I Fall, the more pertinent thing is what it might have been able to tell me about my world, because it completely debunks the politics of bullying as depicted by movies like Heathers* without taking the position of apologist. I’m not going to go so far as to say it necessarily functions as a guide book to the underlying messiness and paranoia of teenage popularity, but it has to at least qualify as a brochure.
(The kind with a map on the back.)
*Heathers was my favorite movie as a tween—taught me everything I thought I knew about adolescence. Then I got to school and had to unlearn half of it.