I read once that you get déjà vu when the two halves of your brain process things are different speed: the right hand half a few second before the left, or vice versa. Science is probably my worst subject, so I didn’t understand the whole article, but that would explain the weird double feeling it leaves you with, like the whole world is splitting in half – or you are.
That’s the way I feel, at least: like there’s a real me and a reflection of me, and I have no way of telling which is which.
The thing about déjà vu is it has always passed really quickly – thiry seconds, a minute at most.
But this doesn’t pass.
Everything is the same: Eileen Cho squealing over her roses in first period and Samara Phillips leaning over and crooning, ‘he must really love you.’ I pass the same people in the halls at the same time. Aaron Stern spills his coffee all over the hallway again, and Carol Lin starts screaming at him again.
Even her words are the same, ‘Were you dropped on your head one too many times or something?’ I have to admit it is pretty funny, even the second time around. Even when I feel like I’m crazy. Even when I feel like I could scream.
Even weirder are the little blips and wrinkles, the things that have shifted around.
(Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver. P66.)
Sam doesn’t believe in that whole ‘life flashing before your eyes’ thing. Still, if she’d known she was going to die today, she would have expected to see her triumphs. The really important stuff: all the parties, and all the times she got drunk. The moment Rob asked her out. Instead she sees Vicky Hamlin’s expression, right after everybody told her she was fat. Not what Sam would have chosen.
Then again, she didn’t choose to die in a car crash, or to relive her final day over and over.
Every time it starts the same. The flash of white light, the falling. Then the alarm clock rings, and it’s Cupid Day again. Cupid Day is a big day at Thomas Jefferson High. The number of roses delivered to you throughout the day is a sign of your popularity. Sam’s popular. She used to be one of the unpopular kids, then she learnt how to dress, and how to stick by the right people. How to laugh at the wrong ones. She figures that’s just how it is.
Everything else about the day differs with each rewind. Sam sees different perspectives, and learns all the different places her actions could have lead. She also finds out things she didn’t see the first time, like what Juliet Sykes did after everybody turned on her at that party. Like how even Lindsay doesn’t do things for no reason at all.
A great narrative on bullying, mental health and collective responsibility.
OK, I’m totally late to the party, but how addictive is Before I Fall? Superficially, it sounds complicated, until you realise Sam’s emotional narrative forms the structure. The genius is in the multi-faceted day. Sam’s final day changes with every retell, but every change puts a new perspective on Day 1. Every day *could* have been the first day. We’re in multi-dimensional reality territory and I love it.
The days are underpinned by recurring events – the alarm clock. A scrum for the last parking space. The delivery of a rose from childhood friend Kent. Whichever variation of the day we are in, this repetition gives the day a time frame.
Occasional italicised paragraphs interrupt the story. This make clear that Sam narrates from wherever she is suspended. When the first day sets Sam’s character up as a shallow, thoughtless and cruel, it is clear from the italicised text that she acknowledges how wrong she got that first day. She also offers a challenge to the reader: How different am I from you?
As Juliet Sykes’s story unfolds, it becomes clear Sam’s initial challenge relates to every single reader. A brilliant one-liner encapsulates the novel: ‘We are all the Hangman’. The teenagers who scream abuse at Juliet on day one didn’t make individual decisions to bully her. Sam needs to learn this. Sam spends a whole day blaming Lindsay, but it makes no difference to Juliet’s outcome. This is an important way of thinking about suicide prevention. It isn’t about one person in one moment. We are interconnected.
Oliver’s characters are brilliantly depicted. She’s the writer who can nail down a butterfly by writing it on to the page. When I related to a character, I didn’t feel I was reading something knew; I felt Oliver was telling me to myself in ways I couldn’t have recognised.
I loved Kent. I’m not usually such a sucker for the-boy-we’re-supposed-to-like. Kent represents the values Sam needs to rediscover. On Day One, Sam can’t understand how Kent can be happy when he’s unpopular. Slowly, she comes to terms with the idea that there’s more to life than this strange system of social judgement. When she’s ready to see Kent for who he is, and not for his social status, she finds there is a lot to like.
Treatment of Sam’s friendship group was sympathetic. I never thought I’d find myself sticking up for Queen Bees, but I was pleased their friendship wasn’t written off by the narrative. Lindsay may be a bully, but Sam doesn’t think she is any less of a person. Given the theme of collective responsibility, this was important. It was also truer to life. Too many similar narratives show the bully left behind by the reformed, without any consideration of the years of friendship behind them.
Before I Fall is now available on Netflix. If you’ve joined the modern era and subscribed, let me know whether it lives up to expectations. Meanwhile, I’ll get hold of some more Lauren Oliver. The best thing about being late to the party? It’s in full swing. There’s a stack of books waiting to be bought.
Huge thanks to Chapter 5/Hodder Books for my copy. This does not affect the honesty of my review.