I’ve had Noah Hawley’s mysterious Before the Fall on my TBR for a few months now, and it finally came in at my library. This was not even a high priority on my TBR but I have such a weakness for checking out unplanned books at the library, so when I saw it there I just went with it.
About the book: a private plane crashes into the cold Atlantic on a routine trip from Martha’s Vineyard to Teterboro. Aboard are two mega-wealthy families–including one with children–a painter, a flight attendant, a body guard, a pilot, and a copilot. Only the painter and smallest child survive. For some, life is ended, but for the two remaining, the world they return to after a bone-chilling ten-mile swim is not the same as the one they left; Scott, the painter, suddenly finds himself a point of much public interest which is good for his art, but bad for his privacy. As his life–especially his love life–explodes in the media, some calling him a hero and some accusing him of crashing the plane himself, he must find his place in the grand order of things, save his reputation, and protect the four year-old boy he rescued from the greed of his new guardians and the harshness of everyone who can never understand what it was like to fight for survival in the middle of an ocean ready to claim them. As pieces of the plane are recovered, the crash only becomes more mysterious; the lives of each of the passengers before the crash is picked apart in search of motives or instances of victimization. What seems at first no more than a terrible tragedy becomes a complex knot of emotions and actions and connections that will reveal an entirely different story than anyone might expect.
“How any two people end up in the same place at the same time is a mystery. You get on an elevator with a dozen strangers. You ride a bus, wait in line for the bathroom. It happens every day. To try to predict the places we’ll go and the people we’ll meet would be pointless.”
Before the Fall is an examination of character and the nature of humanity. Politics and money come into play, but ultimately the focus of the novel is disaster–not just the plane crash at the center of the story, but all of the little disasters that seem so impossible until they’re happening, and even afterwards are difficult to comprehend.
“He was a disaster survivor in that he had survived the disaster that was his life.”
The writing delves deep into the human psyche, extracting nuggets of truth about people’s reactions to wealth, to hardship, to love, or to failure. Each character is complex, narrated with in-depth views of their lives on the night of the crash, and the events that led up to it all the way back to childhood. Before the Fall shows how every small moment of your life leads to the next and the next until everything is hopelessly tangled and the past can never be separated from the future.
“Life is a series of decisions and reactions. It is the things you do and the things that are done to you. And then it’s over.”
In the end, I didn’t like most of the characters, but they were described so well and so intricately that I liked reading about them anyway. I loved the idea that behind every event–in this case a deadly plane crash–are so many histories and details that are all intertwined. I adored the narration here–both its layout, and the writing that filled the structure.
One aspect I didn’t enjoy, however, was the presentation of dialogue. It seemed so choppy. I know people talk in incomplete sentences and use space fillers and incorrect grammar, but all of the characters of Before the Fall speak in these divided fragments that skip between thoughts and pause in the middle to the point where it’s almost hard to read in places. At first it seemed fun and unique, more real than all the perfect sentences we usually see in literature, but after a while it started to seem a little too exaggerated and annoying. I like fiction that feels like it could also be reality, but I don’t like it to be such a struggle to decode.
And then there’s Scott, the painter who can’t answer a question directly to save his life. I like this tactic, to an extent–I use indirect responses in my own writing pretty frequently–but he started to sound really pretentious by veering off topic even for the simplest questions; I mean so far off topic that “why were you on the plane?” turns into an “I think you’re asking me ‘what is the meaning of life’ ” conversation. That’s not an exact quote. I think his actual answer was closer to “Do you mean in the cosmic sense?”, but it expanded from there. I wanted to like Scott, but every time he opened his mouth, if he wasn’t talking to the 4 year-old, he was being slightly–even if accidentally–ridiculous.
My favorite part was the descriptions of Scott’s paintings. Art within art is usually interesting to me, and I thought the descriptions and the ideas behind Scott’s paintings were one of the most fascinating details of this book. I wish the painting he had made of a plane crash had been one of the pieces described, though.
“Art exists not inside the piece itself, but inside the mind of the viewer.”
My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This is definitely a slow-burn story. The reader is given so much detail leading up to the crash, the politics and minutiae of everyone’s lives, but really he/she is just looking for reasons for the crash and nothing seems to be pointing in that direction for a long time. There are little details that hint at inevitable catastrophe, but until the last thirty pages or so the reader doesn’t learn anything that actually happened on the plane leading up to its descent into the ocean. There’s always intrigue, but not much of a tension arc throughout the story. I was both pleased with the realness of the ending, and disappointed that I had been required to learn so much about everyone only to discover that only a couple of the characters really factored into the crash. Still, no matter why it happened, it was interesting to see all of the lives that were ruined in the process and what it meant for all of them. They’re all important, if not quite in the same way. There are a lot of subtleties to this book, is what I’m trying to say. It takes a lot of patience and a little interest in human psychology to get through all the background information. The writing was absolutely the high point for me, which made up for the “Oh. That’s it?” I felt at the end of the plot.
- The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore really has nothing in common with Before the Fall other than the politics and close examinations of the characters surrounding the big events. Both of these books feel meticulously researched and pain-stakingly written down to the last detail, and even though one is about disaster and one is about the (mis)invention of the light bulb, I really think that if you like one of these you’ll enjoy the other.
Coming up Next: I’ve just started reading Stephanie Garber’s new YA release, Caraval, and I can already tell it’s going to be a quick read. This is a magical mystery packed with emotion and I can’t wait to see how it ends.
Are you more a fan of fast-paced thrillers, or carefully-detailed mysteries?
The Literary Elephant