Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Extreme mean girl dies, exceptional novel ensues.

Sample Ms. Oliver's prose: click the cover.
 The construct seems improbable at best, and carrying it off - especially by a novice writer - seems impossible: Rich, mean, popular senior dies in a drunken car crash, then returns to earth to experience her last day six more times, reshaping the events of the day and learning each time. 

And I hated the four main mean girls so much that I just about tossed the book after the first 1/3, thinking:  My god, but this writer has captured them so perfectly and in such vividly fun detail that she's actually glorifying their unrepentant, unremittingly judgmental and condescending stance toward every person they encounter.  Ms. Oliver has them pegged and makes them seem cool, and that truly revolted me.

But then.  I popped over to the blogs of two readers I trust, public school librarians both, and they gave this YA novel high, high marks, so I continued.  I shall be ever grateful to them for their good taste. 

At "day four" of protagonist Samantha Kingston's re-dos, this novel deepens somehow, and Oliver's close first person recounting of Sam's responses, emotions, and sense impressions begins to shimmer from time to time while the events move forward apace - tautly strung so that our knowledge of Sam's death doesn't interfere with our tandem journey through each day.

And by the last third we are entirely enthralled, unable to unstick ourselves from Sam's moment to moment experience as the occasional sensory shimmer snowballs into regular intervals of cleanly delivered quotidian beauty while the intensity of Sam's progress escalates. 

And it all works.  Works to the degree that my heart actually started beating faster and my breathing accelerated for the entire last third of the book.  I think the last time this physical phenomenon occurred while reading was many years ago, finishing the last 80 pages or so of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire when Voldemort tries to kill both Cedric and Harry (see, I refrain from a spoiler there too!).  I wish it would happen more frequently, but then perhaps Oliver needs to keep writing novels.*

Is it a perfect book?  No.  Would I have done some things differently?  Yes.  But any commentary about these issues would again become a spoiler, so suffice to say that a book does not need to be perfect to be dazzling.

I don't think it's too much of a spoiler, given the expectations any seasoned reader would have for character development based on the book's premise, that one unnerving lingering take-away for me is not so optimistic:  It takes a violent death to change a mean girl.  This gave me pause, and cause to reflect.  Is it true for you, as it has been for me, that you've never personally met a mean girl who went nice?  Or can you offer a more heartening experience?

Action Jump-Starts:
* Online Action and Inquiry:  Research the mean girls' style of relational bullying and programs designed to address these behaviors. This article about playground gossip came out just yesterday on Education Week: It's a great start. Both the "Steps to Respect" program mentioned in the article and Social Smarts seem to offer worthwhile projects one might embrace. Perhaps you might check out Dan Savage's It Gets Better Project for additional ideas. Here's another possibility: Five Tips on Dealing with Mean girls.
* Creative Spark: These girls LOVE outfits.  They're constantly changing clothes.  Go make three new outfits from what you've already got in your closet and wear one right now, just because you can.
* Connection:  Look around your neighborhood and your community.  If there are kids, there are mean girls - and bullies of all sorts - and there are victims.  Call your school district and teen community center.  Ask how you might help for a few hours with their service projects and/or anti-bullying campaigns.  Alternatively, learn how to move from bystander to advocate and be ready to do so whenever you're in public and see teens acting mean.

Me? It's time for some light-hearted creativity to balance all the community-minded long term projects from last month:  I'm going shopping in my own closets... Anyone for a mean-girl make-over?

* FYI: Oliver's new novel, Delirium, just came out yesterday! (Honestly, I just looked it up before posting this.)

Just the Jist List
Title: before i fall
Author: Lauren Oliver
Genre(s): contemporary young adult fiction
Book's Website:
Author's Website:
Year Published: 2010
Pages: 470 (but a fast read!)
When was it read? January 22-23, 2011
Perfect Matches: high school age or older - lots of (sadly) realistic drinking, drugs, talk of sex; people hoping to change or wondering how change can happen; people who enjoy unusual structures for fiction
Perfect Timing: just finished The Girl Who Fell from the Sky or A Great and Terrible Beauty
Perfect NOT: not comfortable with mean girls, or with pretty "adult" content, or with violence or suicide
General Fab Scale (1-5): ****
Why? Gripping read, realistic, funny in appropriate places, lyrical in others, thought-provoking, evocative
Action Fab Scale (1-5): ****
Why? Beyond doing something geared toward helping high school students deal with that wonderful-horrific time in their lives, I can't quite see much content-related action.  On the flip side, this would be a perfect opportunity to write to the author, write a chapter from a different character's perspective, write an additional "day" for Sam....
# Yellow Stickies: 10
Why? At about Day Four, many thought-provoking, beautiful passages emerged.  In the last 1/3 of the book, I could not stop to sticky.
Get it:  (again, I'm not an affiliate - just making it easy to purchase)



Anne Bennett said...

I must, must, must get my hands on this book. I even bought another copy for the library and I still can't get a turn at it. Thanks for this wonderful review.


Sidne,the BCR said...

sounds like a book i can definite pick up for my mentoring group. thanks for the review

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