Thoughts: Before I Fall, by Lauren Oliver

Back on the YA train!

We got the film of this at Sneak some time in 2017 (sob), and I have a soft spot for Groundhog Day stories (and I liked the ending) so I was happy to put it on the list. So, there are going to be a lot of spoilers ahead just because of the nature of the story (Groundhog Day style mystery). If you’re planning to read it, I recommend getting it done instead of reading my thoughts on it. It’s incredibly bingeable. I kept meaning to draw it out a bit but nope could not stop.

The premise is this: Sam is part of the popular mean girls clique at her high school (ah, that strange unreal American high school culture), and after one ordinary school day, she goes to a party and dies in an accident on her way home.

Rinse and repeat.

The traditional Groundhog Day story framework is present – Sam needs to work out why she’s trapped in the loop, and how to do the day “correctly”, as it were. But it goes a little deeper into it – the stakes are higher because ultimately, Sam isn’t saving herself. And she’s not only atoning for her own crimes. It quickly begins to feel unfair that she only has this one day in which to resolve essentially her entire life trajectory, in all the complicated knots and tangles of history, consequences and other people that it entails. It’s been a few years since I saw the film, so forgive me, but I didn’t expect it to go this deep and do so this honestly. Sam’s stuck in the time loop so she can prevent the suicide of Juliet, a girl they’ve horribly bullied for all of high school. Sounds like a delicate line to walk, right? Yep.

One little detail I really liked was Sarah’s parking space – on the original day, Sam’s lift to school and best friend, Lindsay, steals the last good parking space in the nearby car park, meaning poor Sarah has to park further away, gets in late, and consequently loses her place in a swimming competition. On another day Sam tries to slow Lindsay down to let Sarah get the space and keep her swimming place. On the last day Sam and the others stop off to pick up coffee, and by pure chance Sarah gets stuck behind them in the queue – she’s going to be late again. And Sam thinks, you know what? If I was one late day in from losing my place at a swimming tournament, I’d make my coffee at home. I thought that was a nice way to show the randomness of cause and effect, and the agency that other people besides us have in their own fates. Sorry Sarah, you were just cutting it too fine.

I liked the banter between the friends, it was sharp and funny and silly in a very teenage girl way (she said, thirty-somethingly) and the complexity of each of Sam’s friends, particularly Lindsay, came out really nicely. Even a lot of the more secondary recurring characters felt nicely rounded, as Sam spends more time on different aspects of the day and doing different things, digging behind those initial assured, glossy impressions we got in the Day 1 narrative.

I will say that Lindsay, the ringleader of the group and the brains behind the bullying they do (thoughtless and deliberate alike) didn’t feel very… redeemed to me by the end. I don’t know if she was meant to? But Sam certainly came back around to her – sure she can be cruel, but she’s fierce and loving etc. I wasn’t totally convinced. If nothing else, her reaction to Juliet’s suicide on the day Sam convinces the others not to go to the offending party, was pretty damning – “She’s better off this way” – and quadruply so when it comes out that Lindsay herself is the one who engineered Juliet’s fall from social grace in the first place, and has kept the pressure on for all this time. I found Lindsay’s own insecurities a reason, sure, but not even remotely an excuse for her behaviour. And nothing she did really made up for any of that. She tries to play it off as her being the only honest one among them, and the others are just hypocrites for feeling any guilt or remorse at what they’ve done all this time (I found that a pretty elegant way of portraying the sort of sunk-cost groupthink that sends people who should know better over the cliff, actually) but it’s a hollow defence for being an awful person. The way she could ruin lives by just testing out a new marker by graffiti-ing some casual thoughtless insult on a toilet stall was pretty potent stuff, and she just didn’t seem to bring much other than the promise of attention and popularity to those who were her friends. Maybe that’s harsh of me. I wouldn’t have been anywhere near a Lindsay’s approval in a US high school and I know it.

Sam spends her repeated days putting this story together, and trying to make up for it, and realising that things have gone so far now that she can’t do anything nice for Juliet that won’t come across as a grotesque mockery. She can’t say anything that wouldn’t sound twisted and insulting. And she did that herself, over years. She made her bed and now she has to lie in it. Over and over again. Sam has almost talked herself into believing that she has changed and become a better person, but from the first time she tries to actually talk to Juliet after this inner change, it becomes very clear that her actionless good intentions are simply not enough to make a difference to this huge, years-high mountain of pain and abuse.

I really appreciated that Oliver didn’t pull those punches. It would have felt facile and insulting for Sam to have made things OK with Juliet in (what was functionally) one single day.

The writing is very American YA in tone, first person, present tense, a little bit too melodramatic for me at times, but again, I’m not really the target audience. Nothing that happened in this book made me reconsider my opinions on the US allowing and even encouraging schoolchildren to drive. Never going to be a good idea, lads, sorry. Still, not much for complaints, is it?

Good emotional binge read, and got a lot more out of it than I thought I would. Good times all round.

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