Fat Books & Thin Women


Review: Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall

Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall is an unabashedly moral book, all the better for the ways its author never attempts to hide or brush over its moral code. The novel is a sort of Groundhog Day high school story, with its narrator, Sam, living the same day again and again. At the end of that day she dies in a car accident, after leaving a party with her friends. The novel tracks her as she runs through the gauntlet of emotions (despair, anger, sorrow, acceptance) about what seems to be her inevitable fate as she wakes up, again and again, on Friday, February 12th. While Oliver overdoes certain images, coming back time and again to the idea of the “butterfly effect”, her ability to revisit and subtly (or significantly) change moments that Sam and the reader have already lived is remarkable.

Before I Fall opens with the car ride that ends with Sam’s death. Sam’s beyond-the-grave narrative voice appears throughout the novel, suggesting that there’s a limit to what Sam can change as she relives that Friday, though it’s hard to suppress the desire to see her wake up on Saturday the 13th, having somehow found a way out of the loop of time she’s been trapped in. She reveals herself early on to be a classic mean girl, albeit one who’s keenly aware of the ways in which she and her friends – in which everyone, really – works to blend in. Right down to the bagels they eat and the way they take their coffee, Sam’s friends strive for a sameness. Oliver seems to take some pleasure in highlighting the ridiculous nature of high school’s delineations between what’s cool and not cool, setting out a hierarchy even for lunch meats.

A few characters outside of Sam’s social circle make their appearances in each telling of the day. Sam realizes, a few days in, that these people are of more importance to her and her story than she would have thought on the first day she died. There’s Anna, a girl who for months has been sleeping with a boy dating a girl saving herself for marriage, but who long before that was marked as a slut and white trash by Lindsay, one of Sam’s best friends. Painfully, Sam comes to realize that to Lindsay that designation doesn’t mean anything, writing of the “AC=WT” (Anna Cartullo=White Trash) grafitti markered in all the girl’s bathrooms, “I’m pretty sure Lindsay wrote it on a whim – four measly letters, stupid, meaningless – probably to test out a new marker and see how much ink it had. It would have been better, almost, if she’d meant it. It would be better if she really hated Anna. Because it matters. It has mattered.”

Then there’s Juliet Sykes, labeled “psycho” – again by Lindsay. It’s Juliet who is at center of the story, a sort of vision of what Sam herself might have been if, in the seventh grade, she hadn’t been plucked out of obscurity by Lindsay, the same girl who for years had been tormenting her with cruel rhymes. On the day of her death, Cupid Day, Sam and her friends send Juliet their annual rose, with a message taunting the fact that she never has – that she probably never will – receive a rose from someone who cares about her. And finally, Kent, the boy Sam was friends with as a child but tossed off when she became popular, in favor of her skeezy lacrosse player boyfriend.

Sam isn’t a likeable character when the novel opens, but she’s aware of that, even directs that line of thought back at the reader.

I know some of you are thinking maybe I deserved it. Maybe I shouldn’t have sent that rose to Juliet or dumped my drink on her at the party. Maybe I shouldn’t have copied off Lauren Lornet’s quiz. Maybe I shouldn’t have said those things to Kent. There are probably some of you who think I deserved it because I was going to let Rob go all the way – because I wasn’t going to save myself.

But before you start pointing fingers, let me ask you: is what I did really so bad? So bad I deserved to die? So bad I deserved to die like that?

Is what I did really so much worse than what anybody else does?

Is it really so much worse than what you do?

Think about it.

Oliver pulls no punches in asking her reader to identify with Sam’s character, and to question their own actions, in this way. These asides, either directed at the reader or commenting on Sam’s own actions as she relives “Cupid Day”, become a sort of pleasant break from the petty incidents of the novel, the name-calling and gossip-mongering. Sam’s authorial voice in these moments is strong, but always believably that of a teenager. Although Sam only lives this one day seven times, Oliver develops her character well throughout; she changes, at times gradually and at times quickly and at times seemingly not at all, but she is always developing and rethinking her actions as anyone would at her age. The idea around which the novel centers, that Sam is somehow bound to relive the day of her death until she is able to change something, improve herself, has Sam turning into a more feeling and sympathetic character during the reading. Even as she becomes a better person, though, she makes missteps, issuing a number of mild cruelties that she intended to be kind.

So many of Sam’s observations are typical high school fare, but Oliver gives them a new weight and meaning. In a sense, Before I Fall offers Sam an opportunity to engineer her own funeral. Even as she becomes a fuller and more caring person, she is concerned in part with how people will think of her after she dies. She wants them, she writes, not just to remember her, but to remember her as a good person. She focuses, too, on the way people change, and how quickly and slowly that change can come. After just a few days, Sam feels that she is becoming a different person than her friends, that something is inalterably different in their interactions because she, unlike them, has been given the opportunity to shift her actions and view their effects on this single day. Oliver, again, grounds her novel well in keeping Sam’s thoughts on this point so much like those of any other high school girl:

It’s weird how much people change. For example, when I was a kid I loved all of these things – like horses and the Fat Feast and Goose Point – and over time all of them just fell away, one after another, replaced by friends and IMing and cell phones and boys and clothes. It’s kind of sad, if you think about it. Like there’s no continuity in people at all. Like something ruptures when you hit twelve, or thirteen, or whatever the age is when you’re no longer a kid but a “young adult,” and after that you’re a totally different person. Maybe even a less happy person. Maybe even a worse one.

Oliver does an creditable job of combining the typical high school story with this metaphysical one of change and growth and opportunity. Sam never seems to think of herself as not-dead, because she is so keenly aware of what is coming at the end of each of her relived days; but in the development of her actions and thoughts, she is absolutely alive, absolutely human, absolutely believable. In Before I Fall Oliver finds a new way of telling this story of high school popularity and redemption. In doing so, she’s given us a world that is recognizable (sometimes, too recognizable; prepare to relive some of your own more humiliating high school moments) but also, despite the repetition of events and stories, new and remarkably fresh.

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Review: Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak
June 9, 2011, 7:17 am
Filed under: Book Reviews, YA Lit | Tags: , , , , , ,

Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak is advertised as a classic of young adult fiction, but it’s one that only came to my attention about six months ago despite its 1999 publication date and my occasional enthusiastic forays into the young adult section of the library. This was an interesting time to read the book, given the recent Wall Street Journal piece declaiming against violence, sex and foul language in current young adult fiction.

Anderson’s book, although frequently banned, isn’t “offensive” in the way the WSJ piece suggests so much contemporary YA fiction is. Anderson deals with what my fifteen-year-old self would label some “heavy issues,” but she does so by exploring her narrator Melinda’s reactions to the events that shape her school year rather than the violence itself. Her novel is, literally, about a girl who refuses to speak, a girl who sees no way of expressing what has happened to her and finds herself abandoned by her friends, shunned by nearly everyone at her school, because what happened to her and what she did afterwards were so misunderstood.

Anderson’s prose is occasionally clumsy, as when she describes one teacher having a “[n]ose like a credit card sunk between his eyes” (10), but obscuring that fault is her skill at describing high school (“Every year they say we’re going to get right up to the present, but we always get stuck in the Industrial Revolution… We need more holidays to keep the social studies teachers on track” [7]), the cruelties of teenage girls (as when Melinda’s one remaining friend, a student new to the high school, matter-of-factly friend dumps her at lunch), and the mind of a student verging on collapse. Melinda is the sort of person, the sort of character, we shy from in life and fiction for the ways in which she refuses to simply “deal” with her issues or reshape herself into the sort of socially acceptable girl she was before the summer leading up to her ninth grade year. Anderson is unflinching in her portrayal of the character.

More than that, Anderson has given us a character who is not only nearly mute when dealing with those in her world, but one who is not capable of admitting to herself what has happened until halfway through Speak. Until that point the reader is left knowing only that something happened over the summer to define Melinda’s year, and her depression, her reluctance to speak and her fear of approaching old friends, are difficult to understand until Melinda herself thinks of herself in terms of “shame.” Melinda does, of course, eventually reveal to herself, to the reader, to one of her friends, what has happened to her, but even then it seems uncertain that she’ll pull herself out of the depression that for the school year has seen her sleeping through whole afternoons and skipping as many classes as she attends.

Anderson’s book should be required reading for teens, not just for the issues it examines but for giving a voice to the sort of high school student it is often easiest to ignore. Contrary to what the Wall Street Journal piece has to say on some other young adult offerings, Anderson deals with sex and violence and depression in an adult fashion, showing what Melinda’s life has become as the result of both what happened to her and her shame over what happened to her, but without glorifying the idea of being a down and out teenager.

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