Lauren Oliver nails emotion in her writing. Her words make you achingly feel something in the core of your being. It is a gift not many authors possess, and when you come across such a talent, you treasure it. She provides the type of writing that remains lodged in your consciousness making you feel like you've learned something about yourself that you never knew before.
And sometimes that knowledge is painful. Before I Fall is not a feel-good novel. It may be aimed at a young adult audience, but it is not light and fluffy. It holds a mirror up posing the question, "Are you strong enough to do the right thing if it would make you the object of ridicule?" Most people would answer in the affirmative, but how many would be telling the truth? When push comes to shove, how many of us would slink away in order to save face? It is a fascinating look at a dilemma that everyone faces on a continual basis. While magnified in a high school setting, the ultimatum reoccurs throughout life. We're repeatedly presented with the act of deciding between building up our common humanity or protecting the image we strive to present to the world.
But sometimes, we run out of opportunities. When Sam, the lead character, is unexpectedly killed in a car crash, her choices have already been made. She opted for the shallow, superficial route. Dressing provocatively, humiliating others and advancing her social status were all she cared about. However, fate intervenes when she starts reliving the day of her death seven times in succession. Hindsight is a harsh taskmaster, but bit by bit she begins setting things right.
Oliver is adept at fashioning realistic teenage characters. Their dialogue rings true. Their obsessions are on target. Their interactions are believable. Sam's posse of friends hits the mark. They are bonded by their collective insecurities that they try to pretend don't exist. They belittle, yet love each other. They're ferociously passive aggressive while at the same time fiercely loyal. You wouldn't want to mess with them because you'd want them on your side.
But the tender moments of the book occur between Sam and her childhood friend, Kent. They've occupied different social orbits during their adolescence. Sam confers to every aspect of the dogma of popularity, while Kent is brave enough to be his own man. Sam is embarrassed for his lack of coolness, while Kent is embarrassed for her lack of character. He challenges her to be a better person, and she resents him for it. Their interactions during Sam's seven days are utterly poignant. The depth of their bond is explored and reborn in a tragically beautiful way. The annoying self-absorption of Sam's friends serves as a perfect contrast highlighting to a greater degree the selfless nature of Kent's love. Oliver's writing shines in the passages featuring the unfolding of Sam and Kent's new-found relationship.
On the flip side is Lindsay, the character who shows the ugliness of Sam's personality. She is the girl that Sam's friends take delight in torturing. They view her as an empty vessel that they can use as their plaything. Little do they know how deeply their words cut and the level of pain they are inflicting on an innocent girl. The result of Lindsay's torment is the ultimate demonstration of what can happen when someone is pushed too far. She represents the painful cry of the bullied and the misunderstood who refuse to cower in the corner any longer. When that plea for help goes unanswered it can lead to unimaginable consequences.
For me, the book is the dual tale of both Sam and Lindsay. They represent two sides of the same coin. Sam is all about maintaining her status, while Lindsay has hers forcibly taken away. Sam is the perpetrator and Lindsay is the victim. However, on the spiritual seven day plane, they are inextricably bound together. They can't move on without first freeing the other. Fate is demanding a resolution to the actions that have been put in motion.
Overall, a fresh take on taking responsibility for bad decisions.
Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver is available for $17.99 at Amazon.com and at LaurenOliverBooks.com.
I discovered this book through a story in my local newspaper. The Scranton Times-Tribune reported on Lauren Oliver's 2010 appearance and her tribute to a deceased local teen. To read the full account, please click here.
LEFT: Author Lauren Oliver signs a copy of her book, "Before I Fall," in the Children's Room at the Dalton Library. In the background is Greg Sandercock, father of the late Delaney Sandercock. The renovated room is in memory of Delaney, who died in a boating accident. Before Delaney died, she requested a copy of Ms. Oliver's book, "Before I Fall." Delaney never got to read the story. When Ms. Oliver heard about Delaney, she wanted to help. She donated money for the renovations and agreed to speak at the rededication ceremony and at a lecture series.
RIGHT: Delaney Sandercock
Review copy, personally inscribed by Lauren Oliver, provided by Valley Community Library.