Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Not-very-nice girls

So, does a book with a dead teenager (coming back to tell us about it) qualify as "dark" teen literature? Since the teenager in question sees the error of her ways in the days following her death, does Before I Fall get shelved away from the ones with depravity, depression, drugs and dystopia? Personally, I found Lauren Oliver's characters' behavior to be equally as horrifying as those in the recently banned Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, yet I wonder if this book gets a pass from those who wish to protect their teenagers from life's unpleasantness. (Sherman Alexie's book was also a source of some controversy near me this year, and here is a teen reader's response to that!)

Sorry ... distracted today for some reason! Must be the sunshine.

Samantha Kingston and her three BFFs -- Lindsay, Ally, and Elody -- rule at Thomas Jefferson High School. Theirs is a reign of terror, however, as their classmates as well as the lowly students in the years behind them freeze or flee if they approach. Their cruel comments about dress, makeup, food, boys, pretty much anything can doom a student to a Siberia of loserdom and jokes at their expense. It's Friday, February 12 -- Cupid Day at her school, where Valentine roses are delivered -- and the four girls have prepared a doozy for Juliet Sykes (dubbed Psycho by Lindsay, the meanest of the mean girls): "Maybe next year, but probably not."

This is the evening Sam will lose her virginity to her heartthrob boyfriend, Rob. She and her posse drink heavily in order to prepare and decide to attend a party at another classmate's (and loser) house. Here they get even more drunk, and when they get back in Lindsay's car on the icy night, they crash and Sam -- riding shotgun (seatbelt?) -- dies.

No loss, you say. Sam is a really, really unpleasant character, topped only in her cruelty by her friend Lindsay. Yet we (and Sam) are destined to spend seven more days together as Sam gets to relive her last day until she gets it right. Yet her quest has neither the humor nor the sweetness of two other versions (without the dead part) of this story with which you might be familiar. We get some background on the girls and some of their victims, and Sam comes to realize the impact of her behavior on others (I hope that's not a spoiler), but for me, it was too late. I didn't like Sam and couldn't identify with her journey to redemption. Because, after all, it's her redemption, the people who have suffered her cruelties remain damaged. I kept asking, What about them? For me, Sam never really changed: It remains all about her.

Because of this, I found the book too long -- by the fifth day I was ready for it to be over. By the fifth day I also knew what needed to happen, so Sam's subsequent forays out into the cold and ice to change the events became repetitive. A new love interest pops up as well, and Sam's swooniness over this got tiresome.

But I must remind myself [I have to do this every darn day ;-) ] -- I'm not a teenager, and I have no doubt that teenagers are sucking this down whole.

The audiobook is narrated by Sarah Drew. She has a lovely teen voice and does a great job with the book's characters. It's not easy to create four different natural-sounding teen girl voices in a conversation, but Drew pulls it off (resorting to a Valley Girl-ish sound only once). Her boys are a little more problematic -- particularly boyfriend Rob, who sounds so idiotic (and drunk even when he's not) that you wonder from the outset what on earth Sam's attraction to him is.

Drew reads the story with lots of variations in pace and volume and she seems to really understand Sam's contradictions. Her gradual awakening to the horrors that she has inflicted on others comes through in Drew's narration and as the story reaches its climax, Drew is not afraid of showing us strong emotions.

I'm placing this book in my "dead teenagers" category. Even though I didn't really like it, I appreciate that Oliver took another approach -- not creating a character too good to be with us on earth. On the other hand, it's very hard to enjoy a book where you can't like or even identify with its heroine.

[The image of Kristin Chenoweth (pink) teaching Idina Menzel (green) how to be Pop-you-ooh-lar is from Wicked Number 1 Greatest Fansite.]

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver
Narrated by Sarah Drew
Listening Library, 2010. 12:26

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