Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver.

Sam Kingston didn't expect to die.  Not on the way home from a party, in a car accident, slightly buzzed from the vodka she and her girls have been shooting.  But die she does.

And then she wakes up, on the morning of the day of her death, to live it all over again.  And again. And again.  Seven times in all, till she learns to put things right.

I'll be honest, I put this book off.  Nothing about the premise appealed to me, however, it was considered a Printz contender and was named on the 2011 Best Fiction for Young Adults list.  More importantly, some of my co-workers read it, and liked it.  So, I dove in.

This book represents an interesting conundrum for me -- how to acknowledge the craft of a book, and  talk about it, without liking it.  Because, while I admire Oliver's writing and the skill she brought to her story, I had a strong visceral dislike for the book.  Mostly because of the main character.

To put it bluntly, Sam is a bitch.  The worst kind of mean girl, in my opinion.  She's not the instigator of any of the myriad cruelties and taunts that she and her crew hand out, but she always goes along.  She's not vile or despicable, just weak.  What makes her worse than the alpha girl she slavishly follows, is that she knows what they do is wrong.  She occasionally has twinges of remorse, but she manages to drown them in sea of consumerism and alcohol.

I'll freely admit, my perspective is skewed by my experience.  Girls like Sam made my life miserable.  Girl on girl social aggression gets me all steamed up, and it seems to begin earlier and earlier.  While reading Before I Fall I wasn't concerned with if Sam would find redemption, but with how I could keep my daughter from turning into a girl like her, or becoming one of her victims*.

Putting that aside is difficult, and I have to say, my dislike for Sam made it hard for me to engage with the story.  However, I can say that Oliver writes beautifully.  She manages to take you inside Sam's life, to help you understand how she became what she is.  For me, that understanding didn't engender sympathy, but, I can see how it could.  The poetic turns of phrase and the small, quiet moments that pepper Sam's struggle are what kept me engaged.  Oliver also has a keen understanding of teens, their relationships and how small, random things are what bind friends together.

Since I didn't like Sam, I didn't want to spend much time with her, so for me, this book is overlong.  About midway through, I wanted to scream "It's not about YOU!"  I'm also not sure that Sam evolved that much through the course of the book; in the end, I still felt like Sam was seeking for herself, not for others as she had claimed.  However, with a character like this, you can only expect so much growth.

One of my benchmarks for a successful teen book is: can I imagine the teen I would hand this book too?  With Before I Fall this is an easy task.  I can totally see teen girls with a taste for romance and melodrama devouring this one.  The length might put some readers off, but girls like Sam, or who wish they were, will eat it up.

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