There’s something you should know: You probably won’t like Samantha Kingston very much, at least not the first time you meet her. But by the time you’ve met her for the third, or fourth, or seventh time, you might start thinking about Samantha a little bit differently. Because she sure starts to see herself that way.
If you’ve seen the movie Groundhog Day, you’ll be familiar with the basic structure of Lauren Oliver’s debut novel, Before I Fall. Samantha relives the same day seven times. She is the only one who’s aware that her life is stuck on repeat—everyone else just keeps living life, moving forward, unaware that for Samantha at least, there’s no such thing as tomorrow. Before I Fall takes a darker, more serious tone than the Bill Murray comedy, however—because what prompts Samantha’s string of “do-overs” is her own death in a car accident.
For so long, Samantha was one of the queen bees, someone who, by her own admission, “just followed along” in the wake of her beautiful, charismatic and sometimes mean friends. But what might happen if she makes different choices—if she takes another look at the boy she’s written off, or reaches out to the outcast, or challenges her best friends’ cruelty? And what will flash before her eyes in the moments before she dies? Samantha hopes it will be the best moments of her life—but what if, instead, her final hours are replayed ad infinitum, giving her the chance to make the right choices, to make amends, even to save someone else’s life, if not her own?
It’s remarkable that Oliver can plot the same day seven times and make each retelling engaging. But Before I Fall is not just a fascinating piece of storytelling; it’s also a thought-provoking commentary on the unintended, and sometimes profound, consequences of even the smallest actions or remarks, and a powerful testimony to people’s ability to make real, meaningful changes in their own behavior and outlook—changes that can deeply affect others’ lives as well.
Norah Piehl is a freelance writer and editor in the Boston area.