Wednesday, October 6, 2010

before i fall by Lauren Oliver (mother-daughter review)

Reviewers' Disclaimer: novel purchased at Nantucket Bookworks.

Usually if I don’t like a book, I quit, but I’m glad my daughter convinced me to keep reading "before i fall" by Lauren Oliver. Despite the unlikable characters, the story is meaningful and thought provoking. Oliver’s debut novel captures American high school at its ordinary worst.

Here’s the premise: a popular senior dies in a drunk driving accident. Sam wakes up the next morning to the same day. Given the chance to redo, what would she do differently? In this self-proclaimed homage to the 1993 movie Groundhog Day (video clip below), Oliver replays that fatal day six more times in variations. The problem is we are stuck in the head of a conventional teenaged girl instead of the hilarious Bill Murray.

This observation on popularity made me stop reading on page 18 of "before i fall:"
“So now I have first pick of everything. So what. That’s the way it is. Nobody ever said life was fair.”
Sam cheats on quizzes, dates a popular jerk, flirts with her teacher, goes to drunken parties and ridicules losers. She’s in a clique with three popular girls, who rule their suburban public high school with sassy entitlement. If this sounds familiar, it’s meant to be.

The novel gets much better on day three when Sam realizes that she has to change. This is when the Clique/Gossip Girl world is flipped upside down. The story avoids sounding preachy because Sam acts like a real teenager. Slowly, a code of morality evolves through trial and error mixed with introspection. Despite focusing on death, this amusing book is about living.

Oliver’s frequently philosophical reflections are delivered in a true teen voice:
Sam’s heart-throb boyfriend: “It’s like the idea of him is better than the him of him.”
"I’m popular - really popular - but I don’t have that many friends.”
On sophomores: “Lindsay calls them s’mores because they always stuck together and more than two will get you sick.”
“I’m dead, but I can’t stop living.”
After the first two chapters, "before i fall" is a book you can’t stop reading. Then it will make you think.

Groundhog Day Trailer (one of our favorite movies)

My 13-year-old daughter’s book review:

I picked up "before i fall" on a rainy day on Nantucket Island just after my mom told me about it. True, she didn’t seem very convinced, but that was just part of why I picked it, to see what it was really like.

Oliver narrates this book from a very believable voice. Sam has flashbacks to being a loner in middle school before she got popular. This perspective allows her to understand the loners in high school. I was worried the book would be repetitive, but it surprisingly wasn’t. It was interesting to see how the same day could go in so many different directions and still go back to the beginning by morning time.

"before i fall" was somewhat addicting and a very funny, pleasurable book. My only criticism would be the characters, most of which were not very likeable, although I did love Izzy and Kent. Unlike my mom, I never considered quitting a quarter way through, and despite my mixed feelings, this book was well worth reading.

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@Barrie Summy

Book Blog Watch: Check out a new book blog, The Contemps, posted by a collaboration of authors who write realistic contemporary fiction for teens. Congratulations to Beth Kephart for selling her thirteenth book to Egmont.


A Cuban In London said...

I loved your honesty. You actually put the book down! And then you were convinced by your daughter to pick it back up and give it a second chance. Very good review, both yours and your daughter's. And kudos to the author for having contributed to such a well-written post.

Greetings from London.

Bonnie Zieman, M.Ed. said...

This is a winning idea for reviewing young adult fiction Sarah. The adult perspective and then the perspective of your daughter who falls into the age group for whom the book was written is a perfect match. Also a great tandem activity for mother and daughter!

Aren't you lucky to have a daughter who can encourage you to give something another try ... and find out she was right!

tina said...

It's great your daughter stuck with it and never thought of quitting it. I'm with you, if I don't like a book I might give it up.

Beth Kephart said...

I have been seeing so much about this book. I love gaining your perspective....and your daughter's.

Tracy Golightly-Garcia said...

Hello Sarah
Two great reviews! If I don't care for a book-I will also give up on reading it after a few pages, but I have come to understand a book can get better as the story goes on.

Tracy :)

Bee said...

Your reviews have made me think about why we so prefer to have likable characters. Can't we also learn something from unlikable ones? (I'm thinking of the protagonist from Prep.) In this book, at least, it sounds like there is an arc of growth. I wonder if any of the Queen Bees of high school will read this book and recognize themselves?

Writers are introspective creatures. It is always interesting, I think, to try to inhabit the mind of someone so unlike oneself.

That bookstore looks charming! From your summer holiday, I assume?

Stacy said...

Love the mother/daughter reviews.

I frequently quit reading books because of unlikeable characters too. It tends to be the unforgivable literary sin for me.

But it sounds like a fascinating idea for a novel.

Anonymous said...

We love Groundhog Day and are always flirting with a plot idea similar to that - guess we're not alone. :)

And how fun to have mother/daughter review the same book - very nice touch. The beginning does sound difficult to get through but it also sounds rewarding later in the book.

Well done, both of you!

TBM said...

Love the two reviews on this book! But I have to admit I don't think I would have made it through to the end... Ok, I might have skimmed until it got interesting.

pattinase (abbott) said...

My favorite movies and I don't mind unlikable characters as long as they are interesting.

Linda McLaughlin said...

It sounds like an interesting book, despite the unlikable characters. So glad you both stuck with it and found it worth reading. I loved Groundhog Day, and the idea of a do-over is very enticing.

Sarah Laurence said...

All, thanks for your positive feedback on our mother-daughter partnership. It definitely encourages my daughter to participate, although now she’s getting really busy with schoolwork.

Bee and Patti, thanks for noting the advantage of having an interesting unlikable character. I actively disliked that selfish protagonist of Prep but at least she was a well-developed, interesting character. The protagonist of “before i fall” was boring. All she cared about was popularity. She goes from selfish to selfless, but she still felt flat. Her popular friends were even flatter. I kept mixing them up.

Nonetheless, the do-over concept, the contemporary realism and the writing made it worth reading. I don’t think this book would cross over that well to adults, but I can see it appealing to most teenaged girls. It teaches a good lesson without being didactic.

Donna said...

That sounds like an interesting book. I have a hard time reading a book if I don't like the main characters very much, but it's good when sticking it out proves worth it!
I like the name and appearance of that bookstore on Nantucket. When I finally get there I will have to go!

Sarah Laurence said...

Donna and Bee, yes Nantucket Bookworks is fabulous for adult, teens and kids. We visit every time.

Anonymous said...

I love the Groundhog Day movie, it's realy funny. It was a nice surprise to come across it here.

I like to read books to the end even if I don't like them (well, if it's not extreme dislike). Sometimes the story just needs time to evolve. Both of your reviews were very interesting to read.

Elizabeth said...

What torment high school is/was to so many people ( me included way back when!)Definitely not 'the happiest days of one's life'.
You both make the book sound fascinating.

Alyson | New England Living said...

Oh, I love the mother-daughter book review! I have a really hard time reading through a book if the main characters are totally unlikable. I probably would have given up too. Glad you ended up liking it after your daughter convinced you to finish!

Barrie said...

I loved the philosophical quotations! And it's always wonderful when the two of you review a book. Thanks!

Carol said...

I find it interesting that the same mistakes are made over and again . . . when given a new chance but glad to hear change does finally blossom. Lovely to read a mother/daughter review. Like you Sarah, I find it hard to keep going with a book I do not like . . . helpful to be reading the same book with a family member. I enjoyed both reviews. Great idea!

Anonymous said...

Dear Sarah and Daughter, What a winning partnership this is for reviewing teen fiction, a genre I have yet to be seduced into. I love your contrasting viewpoints and the way in which they are interspersed with comment from the author. I am tempted...but shall resist awhile yet I think.

Sarah Laurence said...

Petra, how fun to hear that Groundhog Day as crossed the ocean to you and that we share that in common.

Elizabeth, I’m sorry you had a miserable time in high school, many creative people do. My experience was much better, but I was lucky to have a big group of bookish friends. We are still close now.

Alyson and Carol, thanks!

Barrie, thanks for hosting the book review from the road!

Edith, Laura Resau’s Notebook series (reviewed last month) would crossover better to an adult audience as would The Hunger Games trilogy, which I’ll be reviewing next month for the book review club. YA literature is booming thanks in part to a big crossover adult audience in the past decade. This is the cutting edge of new fiction. It’s not for every adult, but I love it.

Anyone in Maine, NPR is playing a Yo-Yo Ma fest today in celebration of his 55th birthday. My eyes keep watering up his cello playing is so beautiful.

Alyssa Goodnight said...

How wonderful that you had second thoughts about finishing and then in the end really enjoyed it! I love the Groundhog's Day homage (great movie!).

Great reviews, as usual. I think I could fall in love with that bookstore...

Amanda Summer said...

yet another great pair of mother/daughter reviews. i guess it would be endemic to ya novels, but the whole cult of mean girls seems to be such a hot topic. and how interesting that the author decided to meld this with a vantage point from death - as with the lovely bones, this can be a gripping literary device.

i also might have been inclined to stop reading if i didn't like a book, so good for you for persisting~

nice job sarah and daughter!

Hana Njau-Okolo said...

It is really wonderful that you and your daughter work together. I like that she picked up the book "on a rainy day" and that it was "somewhat addicting."

Both reviews are really good!

Sarah Laurence said...

Alyssa, thanks! I enjoyed your review too.

Amanda, “before i fall” did remind me a bit of The Lovely Bones but nowhere near as dark. Also the MC is not really a ghost but reliving her last day as if it were real.

Mama Shujaa, I loved her “somewhat addicting” too! It’s so nice to have you back.

Rose said...

How many of us have wished we could go back and do over a bad day in our lives? An interesting premise for the novel that surely will appeal to teenagers.

So glad you included the photo of your bookstore. I love independent bookstores like this; sadly, the really good one we had closed a year ago.

☆sapphire said...

Thanks for the pair of reviews! It sounds like a funny book! I love to read funny books! And I was interested to see the DVD, Droundhog Day. The trailer was very intriguing!
The bookstore in the first photo is lovely! I envy you because many individual small bookstores have been closed in Japan due to financial difficulties.

Sarah Laurence said...

Rose and Sapphire, I’m sorry to hear that your independent bookstores shut; especially that this is pervasive in Japan. Independents are struggling across America, as are the giant chains that pushed many independents out of business.

On Nantucket Island there are 2 independent bookstores and no chains. It’s worth a visit just for that! I used to prefer the other one, Mitchell’s Book Corner, which carried more new titles and more novels by female authors, but it changed ownership and now has less fiction. Nantucket Bookworks has a big YA section and has gotten better at stocking new releases.

My town is Maine also has an independent bookstore, Gulf of Maine Books, which has been there since the 70s with the same owners. It’s delightfully bent towards literary fiction, Maine author and liberal. My only complaint is they don’t stock much YA, but you can order titles from them. There are also independent bookstores in Bath, Falmouth and Portland within a half an hour drive from us.

cynthia newberry martin said...

I have to admit my favorite thing about this post is the lovely photo of Nantucket Bookworks at the top--I have very fond memories of being in that bookstore. My second favorite thing is your daughter's statement that you "didn’t seem very convinced, but that was just part of why I picked it, to see what it was really like." Great!

Elenka said...

What a sweet little shop!

Sarah Laurence said...

Cynthia, that’s so cool that we love the same bookstore. Nothing like literary sparing with a daughter!

Elenka, it’s just as sweet inside.

Loraine said... just finished reading this book, i love your review :)

Sarah Laurence said...

Loraine, I enjoyed your review too but I couldn't leave a comment. Your embedded comment form cuts off the word verification. Nice to connect with you!