The "repeating day" theme has been done in various ways over the years. Groundhog Day is probably the most well-known time loop story, but I've also seen a Buffy episode ("Life Serial"), an X-Files episode ("Monday"), a Xena episode ("Been There, Done That"), and a TV movie called 12:01, which I recorded and re-watched with strange regularity in my teens. These are just a drop in the bucket of popular culture's fascination with the theme, so Lauren Oliver has a lot of expectations to live up to when she tackles the time loop phenomenon in Before I Fall.
Samantha Kingston is a Mean Girl--an ultrapopular high school senior who accepts her privileges without appreciating them ("It's just what happens") and looks down on everyone else. Sitting in the senior section of the cafeteria is "better than getting a straight view of the short-bus brigade dribbling their applesauce. No offense." Sam ignores her little sister, scorns her parents, shudders at the thought that she and loser Kent McFuller used to be friends, and has carefully excised remnants of her past life that might be disdained by her best friend, Lindsay. Along with Lindsay, Elody, and Ally, Sam coasts through a life of parties and BFF bonding: "When we get out of high school, we'll look back and know we did everything right, that we kissed the cutest boys and went to the best parties, got in just enough trouble, listened to our music too loud, smoked too many cigarettes, and drank too much and laughed too much and listened too little, or not at all."
Into this teen girl utopia is thrown a serious wrench in the form of a car accident that claims Sam's life after a day that culminates in a party at Kent's house and a dangerous winter storm. When she wakes up the next (same) day after a dream about falling, Sam slowly begins to realize that the fact that she died isn't just a dream, and that it's up to her to figure out the purpose of her repeating day and take some action. But will Sam find redemption for herself? Will she be able to help, rather than hurt, the girl she's taken pleasure in bullying?
I found Before I Fall to be refreshingly thought-provoking. It's not just the day that has consequences for the accident; it's Sam's entire life. Oliver does a good job of making Sam slowly aware of the details of other people's perception, taking the time (more than 400 pages) to make the payoff really worthwhile. Sometimes there are corrections Sam can make because of her new awareness, and sometimes it's just not possible. Her treatment of Juliet and Kent, her distance from her family, and her scorn for the "freaks" at her school are all more than a one-day phenomenon. In addition, the well fleshed-out secondary characters and physical setting lend the atmosphere a surprising weight. I enjoyed the fact that Sam's transformation from Mean Girl to sympathetic character wasn't complete; she's still a teenage girl with faults and weaknesses.
The audiobook narrator really sold the teen girl voices for me, from the acerbic Lindsay to the more airheaded Elody. Sarah Drew, I salute you!
I don't think that I cared as much about the romantic angle--will Sam lose her virginity to her asshole jock boyfriend?--as I was supposed to. I'm not sure I bought her complete switch from Rob to Kent, even with the whole death thing making social suicide less meaningful.
I do love a good time loop story.
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