Before I Fall: A Book Reportish

For the next Book I Wish Had Existed When I Was in High School, I absolutely have to tap Before I Fall, by Lauren Oliver.

before I fall

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.

5 thoughts on “Before I Fall: A Book Reportish

  1. Oh man, I have SO MUCH love for that book! And it’s funny, I never thought of it in terms of being about Mean Girls, although I guess that is the case. Although I did love the inside look at someone who was in that crowd and was unapologetic about it. I think what fascinated me about it is the idea of paths not taken. And all the ways her life could have been better/different. I think if this had been out when I was a teen I would’ve read it 3 or 4 times by now.

    Also, I checked out The Big Crunch from the library!

    Also, also, LOVE Heathers. I watched it not long ago though, and was surprised at how much it was not how I remembered it. It’s funny how perspective changes with age.

    • It’s weird, because before I read it, I heard over and over through a bunch of channels how it was about mean girls, so then I had this really warped picture of what it was going to be like, because when I think Mean Girls, I totally think Courtney Summers’s books (which I love like whoa, but which are very … difficult), and then the mean-girl description was combined with this idea of the book being very uplifting. Which it IS, in a weird way, but at the time, I just couldn’t picture it, so I defaulted to assuming it was saccharine.

      And YES, I would have been absolutely besotted with the structure when I was a teenager—all the different avenues, the permutations and the possibilities! (Also, I had an obsession with fractals and the butterfly effect, so.)

      Oh, HEATHERS! I still haven’t really had a chance to grow apart from it, because I was always watching it the whole time I was growing up, even if it was just in the background. Periodically I buy a new copy, whenever I’ve recently upgraded my watching-technology. It’s definitely one of those movies I can’t do without. Also, when my sister and I were teenagers, sometimes we would meet at our locker and if it was a particularly socially-trying day, one of us would say, “Pretend I did blow up the school. All the schools. Now that you’re dead, what are you going to do with your life?”

      Which you totally could not say out loud at school anymore.

  2. I think the biggest surprise about Heathers is that I totally remembered Christian Slater as the hero, and really… he was not. Like they made a point to show that. I was surprised to see that the focus was more on Winona Ryder’s realizing he’s out of control and killing those people is actually bad, and thwarting him was her triumph rather than ridding the world of those horrible people, lol.

    Also Courtney Summers, OMG. LOVE HER stuff, but also need to take several deep breaths and lots of psyching myself up to read one. They are so amazingly devastating.

    • I think the biggest surprise about Heathers is that I totally remembered Christian Slater as the hero, and really… he was not.

      Oh man, I knew he was definitively NOT, and he was *still* hot!

      LOVE HER stuff, but also need to take several deep breaths and lots of psyching myself up to read one. They are so amazingly devastating.

      And this is precisely where all my pre-reading ambivalence for BEFORE I FALL came from—I was doing a really bad job of using my imagination and could only picture an either/or scenario (i.e., brutal or sentimental, but never both).

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