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Book Review

This review was created by the editorial staff at Thriving Family magazine

This coming-of-age book by Lauren Oliver is published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Before I Fall is written for kids ages 14 and up. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements

Conclusion

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Elementary school. Those were the days when you made dandelion rings for pretend marriage ceremonies, when you smeared cafeteria food all over bullies who made fun of your friends and when you wet your sleeping bag at summer camp but blamed somebody else. Does any of it matter in the end? For Samantha (Sam) Kingston, it does.

Sam is a high school senior. She's clawed her way up from the bottom rung of the social ladder to become one of the most popular girls at Thomas Jefferson High — thanks in large part to Lindsay Edgecombe, the ringleader of her little circle.

Sam's life revolves around her friends and her boyfriend, Rob Cokran. At home, she just wants to be left alone. But at school, she is the life of the party. She cheats in chemistry, flirts with her calculus teacher and makes stabbing motions whenever Juliet Sykes walks by — even though she's not sure why Lindsay hates her so much. She also makes plans to lose her virginity to Rob on the weekend and studiously avoids any semblance of social contact with newspaper geek, Kent McFuller, a boy who was the groom in their pretend wedding in elementary school.

It's the Friday before Valentine's Day, better known as Cupid Day at Jefferson High. Students send roses with notes to each other. The more roses you have, the more popular you are. Kent is also hosting a party. He's bought two kegs of beer, so despite his middling social status, anyone who's anyone is sure to be there. Already tipsy, Sam and Lindsay show up to the party along with two friends, Elody and Ally. Rob arrives at the party. Unexpectedly, so does Juliet Sykes. Juliet proceeds to tell each member of the foursome exactly what she thinks of them. The girls mock Juliet and pour alcohol on her until she runs away.

Sam's plans with Rob go awry when he gets drunk and angry. The girls leave the party after midnight in Lindsay's silver Range Rover. They've all had too much to drink, and even sober, Lindsay is a bad driver. Sam really shouldn't have been surprised when Lindsay suddenly screams and swerves into oncoming traffic and then into the woods, killing Sam instantly. Sam experiences a sensation of falling through darkness, but wakes up the next morning. Only it's not the next morning — it's Cupid Day all over again.

On the second day (the first day that repeats itself), Sam is in shock. She does few things differently besides trying to convince herself she has déjà vu and drinking more vodka to make the feeling of inevitability disappear. She dies again in the same car crash that killed her the first time.

On the third day, Sam decides not to do anything that might put her life in jeopardy. She feigns sickness, and her mom drives her to school late. She begs the girls to stay home from the party. They have a drunken (but safe) sleepover at Ally's house instead. In the middle of the night, Ally's mom wakes them up. Juliet Sykes shot herself tonight, she says. There was no note. The girls are disturbed but relieved. No note means they won't be called out for bullying Juliet since middle school. Sam doesn't die, but still wakes up on Cupid Day the next morning.

By the fourth day, Sam has decided that nothing she does matters. She wears especially provocative clothing and insults her friends so badly that Lindsay kicks her out of her car and makes her walk to school. She seduces a teacher and lies on a desk while he gropes her. Because she has no one to eat lunch with, she smokes pot with a former enemy in the washroom. When the girls arrive at Kent's house, she pulls an already-drunk Rob into a bedroom with the intention of having sex with him. But before their clothes are completely off, Rob falls into a drunken sleep. Sam leaves him, finds an empty room and cries her heart out. Kent finds her, comforts her and puts her to bed in a friendly, gentlemanly way. Sam begins to fall in love with him.

On the fifth day, Sam makes family her top priority. She tells her friends she's sick and convinces her mom to let her stay home by saying that she broke up with Rob. She also convinces her mother to let Izzy, Sam’s little sister, stay home with her. Sam and Izzy spend quality time together, and the whole family goes out for dinner at their favorite restaurant. At the restaurant, Sam spots Marian — Juliet Sykes's younger sister. Sam decides to stop Juliet from committing suicide.

After her family goes to sleep, Sam sneaks out of the house and drives to Juliet's — but she's already left for Kent's party. Desperate to intercept Juliet before she shoots herself, Sam follows her. By the time Sam arrives, Juliet has already insulted Sam's friends and barricaded herself in a bathroom. Terrified that Juliet may have already killed herself, Sam asks Kent to pick the lock, but Juliet escapes through the window. Sam looks for Juliet in the woods surrounding Kent's house. She finally finds her standing beside a highway. Sam tries to convince Juliet that it's not too late, that life is still worth living. But before Sam can stop her, Juliet flings herself in front of an oncoming vehicle — Lindsay's silver Range Rover. She is killed instantly, as is Sam's friend Elody.

Sam realizes that Juliet's suicide caused the crash in the first place. Juliet only shot herself on the one night the girls didn't attend the party. She needed to confront them so she could work up the courage to end everything. When Sam and her friends weren't there, it took Juliet longer to decide, and she shot herself instead of throwing herself in front of Lindsay's car. Kent handles the situation calmly, and once again puts a distressed Sam to bed. He tells her that because she stood up for him in elementary school (smearing hot lunch all over a bully who teased him for crying about his grandfather's death) he vowed to always be her hero. Sam falls head-over-heels in love with him. She also resolves that tomorrow she will save two lives, hers and Juliet's.

On the sixth day, Sam is relieved that the day repeats itself. She resolves to do everything perfectly. She is polite to her parents and sister. She stops Lindsay from stealing a parking space from a girl who will be kicked off the swim team if she's late for school. She removes the mocking note and the rose her friends were going to send to Juliet for Cupid Day and replaces it with two-dozen roses and a note that reads, "From your Secret Admirer." She doesn't cheat on her quiz. She scrubs defamatory graffiti from bathroom doors. She orders the roast beef for lunch instead of the more socially correct turkey. At the party that night, she tells Rob to strip naked and wait for her in a bedroom — but instead of coming herself, she sends in an amorous young couple looking for some private space. He is humiliated and flees in his boxers. Sam also intercepts Juliet before she has the chance to confront Lindsay and company. In the privacy of the bathroom, Sam apologizes to Juliet for years of bullying. She also learns why Lindsay hates Juliet — in fifth grade, Lindsay wet the bed on a group camping trip and blamed her best friend at the time, Juliet. Juliet never told anyone, even though Lindsay and her gang of friends (including Sam) made her life a living hell for the next seven years.

But Sam's apology comes too late, and Juliet slips away. After locking the doors to Lindsay's Range Rover and taking the keys, Sam goes after her. There's no way she can jump in front of their car tonight. She finds Juliet by the road again. But when Juliet tries to jump in front of a truck, a surprised Sam barely holds her back. Why isn't she waiting for Lindsay? Juliet tells her the truth: It's not about revenge, Sam or Lindsay. She isn't waiting for the silver Range Rover. Any vehicle will do. She runs into the road just as two minivans converge from opposite directions. She dies.

After dealing with the situation (again), Kent drives Sam home. He kisses her. And Sam wakes up on Friday morning. It's the seventh time she'll experience Cupid Day.

Sam tells her parents she loves them. She gives Izzy her grandmother's necklace and hugs her tightly. She cherishes every moment of silliness with her friends. She tries to do her best on the chemistry quiz, tells her calculus teacher to stop hitting on high school girls, and gives her pot-smoking ex-enemy an art book. She flirts with Kent and breaks up with Rob. She drives her friends to the party and then drives the Range Rover all the way back to Lindsay's house to make sure none of her friends will drive drunk. Kent drives her back to the party — but not before the two exchange passionate kisses. Sam waits for Juliet at the door, but Juliet runs away. Sam chases after her. Kent and Sam's friends chase after Sam.

Juliet launches herself into the road as the two minivans converge. Sam runs after Juliet and pushes her to safety. Juliet is still alive, but it's too late for Sam. She is dying for the last time. But this time, she realizes that she's flying, not falling. And it isn't dark at all — her eyes had been closed before.

Christian Beliefs

Years ago when Sam's family went to church on Christmas and Easter, Sam was afraid of the statue of Jesus on the Cross behind the pulpit. She compares Juliet Sykes to Jesus and to an angel. Professing atheist Lindsay confesses that when she's afraid she recites the well-known prayer that begins: Now I lay me down to sleep. . . . Later, Sam claims it for herself.

A student asks if souls can go from purgatory to hell. The teacher says no, but adds that some Christians believe souls can move from purgatory to heaven. Sam believes this might happen to her if she sacrifices enough and proves that she deserves to move on.

A Catholic girl plans to save herself for marriage. Lindsay makes the sign of the Cross and pretends to pray for protection whenever Juliet is around. Other mock prayers include asking God to bless a doughnut shop. Kent's newspaper is called The Tribulation.

Other Belief Systems

Sam speculates that her death may mean that she is forced to live the same day over and over forever. She believes that the moments she lives continue to exist somewhere in the universe, even when the day is over and she does things differently the next day. She experiences a sensation of flying and sees bright colors after her final death.

The girls play with a Ouija board and pretend they have contacted the spirits of child molesters. Sam threatens to convert to voodoo. She speculates that it might be OK to lie if it's for a good cause. Defecating on a Bible is mentioned.

Authority Roles

Sam's parents are well-meaning but distant. In their attempt to respect their teenage daughter's growing need for privacy, independence and personal space, they initially fail to meet her needs for love, discipline and protection.

Sam and her friends find it all too easy to break the rules, and it's not clear whether the parents condone activities such as underage drinking, teenage sex and other misbehaviors — or whether they simply choose to look the other way. Sam's relationship with her parents begins to change over the week of Fridays. Sam’s parents object to the clothing she is wearing on the grounds that people will get the wrong idea about her. When Sam tells her mom that she broke up with Rob, her mom enters her room for the first time in years and comforts her. Sam begins to appreciate all the little expressions of love her mother showed her when she was younger and regrets the times when she pushed her parents away.

Lindsay's parents divorced when she was still in elementary school. Her distress over their separation caused her to start wetting the bed. She has very few rules and boundaries and carefully sneaks out of the house even though she has no curfew.

Teachers are regularly treated with disrespect by Sam and her friends. Teachers also engage in sexual activities with each other and with their students. Elody's mother is an alcoholic. Kent holds his party when his parents are away.

Profanity/Violence

Profanity is frequent and varied and includes the epithets d--n, p---, s---, b--ch, and a--. The names of God and Jesus are misused. Many other crude words and euphemisms are used.

Juliet commits suicide several times, once with a gun. Sam remembers other students at Jefferson High killing themselves. Girls are hit and killed by vehicles.

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

Sam, her friends and seemingly everyone else in their social circle (with the possible exception of Kent) are obsessed with sex. Sam and her friends talk of little else. The author includes sexual banter, gestures, thoughts, fantasies, speculations, rumors and encounters in graphic detail that sometimes border on verbal pornography. Teens (and teachers) grope (over and under clothing), grind, kiss, French kiss, hold hands, make out, hook up, lose their virginity (on purpose and accidentally), have intercourse outside of marriage with various partners, cheat on their significant others, dump their love interest and are dumped by them. Among the more significant incidents are the following:

Sam wants to lose her virginity so Lindsay and Elody will stop teasing her. Sam's calculus teacher lays on top of her, kissing her and groping. Sam tries to have sex with Rob, but he falls into a drunken sleep before they take their clothes off. Rob regularly massages her breasts under her shirt, often tearing her bra in the process. Sam wears a necklace that reads slut.

Lindsay lost her virginity years earlier to a drunken university student she didn't even know. The girls call Elody a whore because of the one-sided relationship she shares with her boyfriend, Steve. Sam flashes a car full of strange men. Teenage girls dress provocatively and give sexual favors to uncommitted teenage boys. Girls compare their bodies and accuse each other of having contracted various sexually transmitted diseases. Lindsay calls Kent a stalker. Elementary-age children kiss. Child molestation is mentioned.

A boy calls Kent a faggot in elementary school. Later, that same boy is caught sleeping with another boy. The girls regularly kiss each other on the cheek and feign humping motions as they anticipate or remember male-female unions. Acting too mushy is described as lezzing out. Someone speculates that a girl might be a closet lesbian.

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Drug and Alcohol Abuse: Teens (including Sam) regularly abuse alcohol and occasionally drugs. Sam enjoys the feeling she gets when she's high.


This review is brought to you by Focus on the Family, a donor-based ministry. Book reviews cover the content, themes and world-views of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. A book's inclusion does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

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