I hated my years at school. Despite all the saccharine you'll hear about it being the best years of your life, they were hands-down the worst of mine. So I can't avoid a creeping feeling of horror when reading about American high schools, where all the things I despised about secondary school seem to be multiplied tenfold.
This made reading "Before I Fall", a story focussing on a shallow, bitchy group of popular girls, slightly off-putting. I underestimated author Lauren Oliver's skills.
"Before I Fall"'s protagonist Samantha Kingston has everything - looks, popularity, and a gorgeous boyfriend - until she dies in a car crash. She's forced to relive the day leading up to the crash again and again, trying to work out what she needs to do to prevent the day looping. Repeating that day allows Sam to see how events affect different people, and find out if her actions can change how it all plays out. Even the most minor character becomes a vital piece to the puzzle.
This story has some of the most wonderful characterisation I've seen in a while. The popular main characters act true-to-form by being viciously catty and spending money on anything and everything, but throughout the story you learn pieces of their backstory which makes them more sympathetic and real. The unpopular kids, at first scorned as minor characters, step into the foreground.
There's a strong handle on detail in this story as well - different objects in the room are noticed each day, different quirks in people, and there are still a hundred little high school dramas going on around her.
I love the way this book is written, knowing that people will be rooting for the unpopular kids as much as the main characters and using that to pull you into the story. I love the way it ends. I love it's honesty. The deft skill with which this books make you emphasise with each character really can't be understated, as well as the subtle commentary on bullying.
It's a magnificent book, and a jaw-dropping debut.
A copy of "Before I Fall" was provided for this review by Hodder & Stoughton.