Facing Death Again
I’ve never been a fan of recurring last-day tales of redemption a la Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day movie. Second chances are good; but fifth, sixth, seventh chances? That just seems excessive. I squirmed in my seat watching Bill Murray relive the same day over and over and over and over again, and I swore to myself: Never again.
Lauren Oliver has not only made me renege on this promise, she has made me renounce it. Revolving her novel, Before I Fall her novel, Before I Fall, on Samantha Kingston’s exploration of her last day on Earth, Oliver creates an oddly encased coming-of-age story that captivates and charms us with Sam’s evolving awareness of who she is and what she wants in the world.
On the day of Sam’s death—Friday, February 12—she is her usual outgoing self. Best friend to three of the most popular girls in school, girlfriend to one of the most beloved boys in school, Sam thrives on “the good feeling” she gets from “knowing you can basically do whatever you want and there won’t be any consequences.” And take advantage of the system, Sam does. Cheating on a chemistry test, flirting inappropriately with her math teacher, and ruthlessly mocking other students, Sam’s world revolves around her social status. Sam’s last day of life culminates in a big party that has the biggest consequence of all for Sam.
The next day Sam wakes us with her alarm going off at the usual time and is shocked to learn that it’s Friday, February 12 again. Shaken and disturbed, Sam goes through her day hoping that she imagined her death, while making small changes in the hope of avoiding the previous night’s consequences, but to no avail. In fact, Sam relives the last day of her life seven times, while trying to figure out why these things are happening to her and what she can do to change the outcome.
Admittedly, after day two I worried that I was in store for another Groundhog Day debacle. But with each successive day, Oliver creates surprising plot twists that reveal an insightful look into how the circumstances around Sam’s death involve far more than just her. Characters’ lives become intertwined—from Sam’s best friends to the unpopular girl they have repeatedly tortured, to a boy Sam tries hard to ignore. In the end, Sam must uncover the complex set of events that lead to her death and make the right decision for everyone involved.
The fact that Sam grows as an individual with each passing day is no surprise. There are clichés that run the course of the novel: the popular girl who learns to be more considerate of those around her, the girl who never slowed down enough to appreciate her family until she’s about to lose them. But Oliver makes these believable by connecting Sam’s genuine, heartfelt longing to those of our own lives. We can all relate to longing to kiss someone, or taking a parent for granted, or going along with a friend because it’s easy.
Because we’re able to connect to Sam’s life through common experiences, we feel her shock, grief, anger, and a gambit of other emotions that we imagine coming from having to relive the day of our death again and again. The seven days for Sam are a sort of rite of passage into adulthood—she must figure out what is important to her and act accordingly, giving her an awareness that eluded her in the beginning of the novel.
I don’t want to give away the ending of this book, but by the book’s close it’s almost irrelevant whether Sam indeed dies or manages to live. What matters is that Sam grows up as she delves into her life and we, as readers, get to grow with her. Through this process, we’re reminded how difficult it is to be a teenager, but also exhilarating, dazzling, and beautiful.
Blythe Robbins, a Californian living in New York City, is a geeky editor by day. At night, she can be found reading fiction or writing her blog: theonegoodthing.blogspot.com.