TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:
Lauren Oliver's "Before I Fall" immediately landed on the NY Times Children's Bestseller list, an impressive feat for a first-time author. This book was another ARC that I received back in November but only recently read. I can't believe I was so dumb! "Before I Fall" is "Mean Girls" meets "Groundhog Day," a potent, tragicomic look at high school cliques, friendship, bullying, regret, and forgiveness. It is every bit as devastating as Jay Asher's suicide novel "13 Reasons Why" and as touching as Gayle Forman's life after death story, "If I Stay," yet it's wholly unique in its own right. "Before I Fall" is, for me, the first great teen novel of 2010, which makes me again want to kick myself for waiting so long to read it!
Sam Kingston wakes up late on "Cupid Day," the pre-Valentine's day ritual when students at her Connecticut high school give and receive roses as symbols of friendship, love, and, above all, popularity. Sam has no worries in that last regard, since she is a member of the four-girl clique that basically rules her senior class. Dominated by the brash, bitchy Lindsay, Sam, Ally, and Elody run roughshod over dorky classmates, bully their way into choice parking spots, spread rumors about a slutty underclassman, painfully ignore their inferiors, and essentially torture school freak Juliet Sykes on a daily basis. Sam is just as harsh and cruel as her friends, which makes it difficult to like or even sympathize with her at first … this despite the fact that Sam dies in a car accident the night of Cupid Day after a party at nerdy, offbeat Kent McFuller's house.
Yes, you read that correctly. Sam dies the first night we meet her. Her painful death is followed by a strange, otherworldly falling sensation, after which she wakes up in her bed on the morning of Cupid Day. That's right. For the next six days, Sam relives Cupid Day, always retaining the knowledge from each previous day while her friends, family, and classmates blindly move about the day for the first time. It's an intriguing premise, and it's expertly developed by author Oliver. She knows just when to immerse us fully in all aspects of a Cupid Day and when to gloss over details to maintain the tension and avoid any trace of tedium. I really loved how Sam tried different strategies each day, at first frantically attempting to play it safe only to later try life as the ultimate bad girl, giving in to a skeevy teacher's advances, stealing her mom's credit card for a shopping spree, and drunkenly crashing Kent's party. This reckless behavior contrasted beautifully with the quiet, almost mournful Cupid Day Sam spends with her often-neglected younger sister and her folks.
Besides the incredible insight into high school life — Oliver absolutely nails how teens talk and act — we also get an intriguing mystery. Sam is repeating Cupid Day for a reason, and it involves poor Juliet Sykes, the willowy outcast who suffers a "Carrie"-like moment at Kent's party. When Sam finally uncovers Juliet's middle school friendship with queen bee Lindsay, she starts to understand and even appreciate Juliet's behavior. The book's keen view into the fickleness of popularity — Sam herself was plucked from nerdom by a chance encounter with Lindsay at a pool party — and its sharp portrayal of how popularity both empowers and enslaves those who possess it is truly remarkable. Because we see so many different sides of the characters as Sam repeats each Cupid Day, we cannot help but feel a pang of sympathy not only for the have-nots, but also for the haves, even the seemingly ruthless Lindsay.
I'd prefer not to give anything away on this point, so let me only briefly mention that I'm glossing over a romance that is so unexpected and so tenderly portrayed that it completely blew me away. Besides her wicked insight into the teen mind, Oliver writes lyrical, emotionally charged passages that are as good as anything the great Sarah Dessen has put forth. There are so many reasons to adore "Before I Fall" — the quality of the writing, the multi-faceted characters, the unflinching look at high school life, and the powerful secret at the heart of the story — that a lovely romance is a wonderful bonus.
"Before I Fall" is, in a word, fabulous. I absolutely recommend it to high school age readers, or any middle schoolers mature enough to handle the very strong language and references. My only regret here is that I didn't dive into this book last autumn! Don't make my mistake and wait. I promise, you will love it.