First published on May 31, 2016
Grand Central Publishing
Source: ARC from the publisher via Netgalley
“On a foggy summer night, eleven people-ten privileged, one down-on-his-luck painter-depart Martha’s Vineyard on a private jet headed for New York. Sixteen minutes later, the unthinkable happens: the plane plunges into the ocean. The only survivors are Scott Burroughs-the painter-and a four-year-old boy, who is now the last remaining member of an immensely wealthy and powerful media mogul’s family. As the passengers’ intrigues unravel, odd coincidences point to a conspiracy. Was it merely by dumb chance that so many influential people perished? Or was something far more sinister at work? Events soon threaten to spiral out of control in an escalating storm of media outrage and accusations. And while Scott struggles to cope with fame that borders on notoriety, the authorities scramble to salvage the truth from the wreckage.” Source: Hachette Book Group.
Before the Fall captures the spirit of ‘beach reading’ perfectly: it is a feel-good, semi-philosophical, mysterious page-turner about an event that I’m sure horrifies most people: a plane crash. A story that titillates and keeps the reader engaged through an atmosphere saturated with all the known pleasure-pain triggers: the devastation wrecked by tragedy; the ambiguity and uncertainty of love; the thirst for money and power; the journey into finding personal meaning in a chaotic, senseless world.
The story begins with the crash of a small private jet; on board: two monied families (a media company exec and a financial giant), flight crew, security, and an artist, invited last-minute by one of the wives). All perish upon impact into the Atlantic except the artist and the 4-year old son of the media executive; through a series of coincidences (or good fortune, or luck, or fate) the artist, a former swimmer, is able to find their way back to land. He is hailed as hero (he saved the boy! he swam for miles in the dark!) or possibly a traitor or criminal (how did he escape? why was he on the plane?)
Overall, Before the Fall is an entertaining read, a thriller in the vein of books that I definitely need once in a while to unwind from the demands of life and adulthood. It’s also quite well written and much more thoughtful than others in the genre.
Still, I did not always find this book compelling or interesting in any unique way. (Some thrillers that fall into the 4-to-5-heart category for me are anything by Michael Crichton or Michael Connolly). As I tried thinking of ways to capture its essence for this review, my overwhelming reaction was, just, “eh.” It was definitely fun, but I didn’t care much about it while I was reading; it was analgesic in effect, not spurring any great emotions or excited realizations.
Usually my reviews are born in some extreme passionate and personal reaction – I read as a form of meditation, and see reviews as a mirror into my/the reviewer’s heart, as much that at least as an appraisal of the work itself. This review is difficult to write because I have 0 feelings about Before the Fall-I am completely agnostic. Still, I know this isn’t extremely (at all?) helpful to anyone reading this, so here’s an attempt at spelling out some aspects that did not work for me:
* I did not find the meta-structure of the novel to be cohesive; the story did not seem to be threaded in a narrative, holistic way. For example, we have an omniscient narrator; segments of the book jump randomly back and forth in time, and we know what people were doing and thinking before the crash, in a way that isn’t connected to anything going on in the present. Take Memento, the famous movie that popularized this unfurling backwards of a storyline- events in this case are connected through this guy’s memory; in Before the Fall, there is no reason why we all of a sudden are presented with a past conversation-these are just random “God” moments.
* There was an overabundance of pontification. 50% of this novel consists of Hawley’s omniscient narrator making philosophical proclamations such as: “Once anointed a hero by your fellow man, you lose the right to privacy. You become an object, stripped of some unquantifiable humanity, as if you have won a cosmic lottery and woke one day to find yourself a minor deity.” While I may agree on most of these insertions, I don’t much care for fiction books that predominately tell over showing.
* Hawley’s world is not one I inhabit, or one I think or read much about-that of celebrities, financial gurus, artists, money, power and feel-good, fairy-tale endings. Basically, it felt a bit too Hollywood for my taste: all-ritzy/red-carpet/starving-artist-with-wealthy-patron/world-of-private-jets…