Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver is ostensibly Mean Girls meets Groundhog Day. More than that, it feels like Emma (yet another mean girl book in the YA genre, and yet another Emma spin wherein the heroine at first seems unlikable) brought forward two hundred years mashed up with Before I Die, or even the very excellent If I Stay (reviewed here - another story about a high school girl forced to examine her life as she lies on her deathbed).
To judge it on its own merit, Before I Fall is a well-written page turner about a popular-by-affiliation mean girl and her last day, which she must relive until she gets it right. It takes her a couple of days of reliving her last day before she realizes the impact of her subtle interactions with her snubbed classmates and family. Then there's another day of anger. Another day of sadness. Another day of woe. And finally, two days of trying to right her past wrongs while simultaneously learning to appreciate the average moment as well as the the people in her life, even with all of their own faults.
Some readers will note the parallels as explored in Thornton Wilder's famous play, Our Town, a perennial high school literature subject. But the appeal here is that Sam Kingston is not an every day, average girl and thus I think the modern appeal. What wild outlandish prank that Sam and her clique of girlfriends inflicted on their classmates will we read about next? How mean can they be? Instead of watching reality TV, it's as if we're reading about it in Before I Fall.
Sam's transformation into a more caring person is believable, although I think I'm one of the few people (at least compared to Amazon reviews) who did not ultimately like her. I also found that the book dragged. Sam seems abnormally slow at figuring out how far her influence extends, and how she alone is able to affect the outcome of the fateful day that landed her in her situation. One other minor complaint - occasionally, Sam talks to the reader (text is in italics) and it never added one degree of complexity or originality and nor did it make the book more enjoyable. Instead of trusting the reader that we get it - did Sam deserve to be in that car accident? - the author has Sam ask, did I deserve to die? After all, we've got 480 pages to think about that question.
The dialogue is well-done, and I found the scenes with Sam and her family touching. I'm glad that I read it, and I would recommend Before I Fall because of the caliber of the writing, but only after insisting that you check out If I Stay.