Before I Fall is Lauren Oliver’s standalone debut work. Published in 2010 by Harper Teen, it has garnered a long list of accolades, including being a New York Times Bestseller and named to the YALSA Top Teen Reads of 2011 list. It has also been translated into several languages, with more translations in the works.
The book follows Sam Kingston, a high school senior, on her last day alive—except instead of having the highlights of her life flash before her eyes before she moves on, she finds herself waking back up at the start of the same day, to live it all again. In the repetitive days that follow, Sam struggles to find the answers she needs to save herself, and they aren’t as obvious as you might think.
Speculative fiction at its best
Before I Fall is neither science fiction nor fantasy, but it is speculative, as no one living has any clear idea what happens after we die. While this book may be a bit more literary than many speculative fiction readers are used to, I hope that won’t stop anyone from picking it up. The writing here is simply fantastic, among the best I’ve ever read. There were several points in the book where I simply had to stop and appreciate the prose I’d just read because it was wonderfully evocative and truly beautiful. The fact that this is a YA novel, a genre which has a reputation of being dumbed-down and not as well-written as the adult genre, is extraordinary. Were this exact book written from the perspective of an adult, with no changes to anything else, it would be a bestseller in the adult markets instead of YA.
A clear message
One of the key lessons Sam learns through the novel is that what she does has consequences for other people. Stealing someone’s parking spot may make them late for class, which in turn means that they are no longer allowed to compete in their upcoming sporting event. Cheating off of someone’s test may get them in trouble instead of you. Years of hazing someone can drive them to suicide. Oliver manages to give Sam some very valuable life lessons about what it means to be a human being without sounding like a preacher. Sam’s realizations grow organically, and don’t feel like something the author is putting in her head unnaturally. She can explain the things she’s learned to herself, and therefore, to the reader.
A deep, relatable character
The entire book is from Sam’s point of view and is in the first person. Because the novel is one day lived over again several times, none of the other characters change or develop. Sam’s journey alone has to carry the book, and it does. In learning about everyone else, Sam learns about herself. Sam makes different choices every time she repeats the day she dies, some of which take her in wildly different directions than that initial day. One thing I really appreciated about this book was the variety Oliver gave us in days, even while everyone but Sam was still doing everything the same way they had before as long as she didn’t change anything that affected them. Oliver doesn’t make us sit with Sam through the same chemistry class seven times. It’s that variety that really enables Sam to grow and keeps her readers interested and invested. We meet the same characters in several different situations, and that deepens our understanding of them even as it opens Sam’s eyes to things she’s never thought to see before.
Why you should read this book
First and foremost, it’s a wonderfully well-written tale that is as accessible to adults as it is to teens. I won’t call this a fun and entertaining read, but it is a fulfilling and satisfying one. I will even go so far to say that in a society as plagued by bullying and hazing as modern America is, Before I Fall and books like it may even be necessary reads. That it’s enjoyable to boot is a wonderful extra.