Sam Kingston and her friends Lindsay, Ally, and Elody are the queen bees of Thomas Jefferson high school in the affluent community of Ridgeview, Connecticut. Obsessed with fashion, social media, social capital, and, indeed, themselves, the four girls torment underclassmen, nerds like Kent McFuller, and “freaks” like Juliet Sykes. The social ecosystem of Thomas Jefferson is both fragile and rigid, and it often seems there’s only one direction in which one can move on the social ladder: down. As the novel progresses, Sam Kingston, realizing that she is trapped in a kind of purgatory, begins to consider how small and petty the social trappings of her high school are, and tries to impress her newfound perspective on her oblivious friends and classmates. Her friends, however, find it difficult and sometimes even impossible to see beyond the popularity contest, and in the end it is only Sam who is able to prioritize acting righteously towards others over advancing her own social status. The novel ultimately shows that wealth, popularity, and status don’t matter in the grand scheme of life, and that it is instead kindness, generosity, and goodwill toward others that truly make a life worth living.
“Popularity’s a weird thing,” Samantha Kingston says in the early pages of Before I Fall. “You can’t really define it, and it’s not cool to talk about it, but you know it when you see it.” She goes on to describe how she and her friends—Lindsay, Elody, and Ally—“can get away with everything” because they are popular, and are popular because they can get away with everything. “It’s circular,” Sam says matter-of-factly. She’s grateful for how easy things are for her and her friends—very grateful, in fact, because she knows what it’s like to be on the “other side” of the high school food chain. Samantha spent her childhood getting bullied by many of her classmates, including her current best friend Lindsay and super-popular boyfriend, Rob Cokran. Popularity affords Sam lots of perks. She gets to kiss the cutest boys, attend the best parties, cheat off her smarter peers like Lauren Lornet, and feel superior to nerds like Kent McFuller (her grade-school sweetheart) and outcasts like Juliet Sykes. Despite all her social capital and power, Sam is self-aware when it comes to the delicate nature of her social status, painfully cognizant of the fact that while a few years ago she shot up the social ladder through her friendship with Lindsay, she could just as quickly slide back down at any moment simply by wearing, saying, or doing the wrong thing.
At the beginning of the novel, readers see Sam trying desperately to cement her social status. She is obsessed with how many roses with attached notes from friends and admirers—known throughout school as Valograms—she is going to receive on Cupid Day, and both nervous and excited about the prospect of losing her virginity to her hot and popular boyfriend, Rob Cokran. Though Sam knows something is wrong in her life—she’s not as in love with Rob as she feels she should be, and she knows that her friends’ cruelty toward others isn’t right—she’s too afraid to rock the boat or appear like an outsider by admitting any of her doubts to herself or to anyone else. As the novel progresses, and Sam lives Cupid Day over and over again, she begins to see the seams and imperfections in her social life, and she reflects more deeply on the warning signs that have always been there. She thinks back to when Rob and Lindsay teased and bullied her in elementary and middle school—Lindsay even made up an embarrassing song about Sam’s tendency to blush when nervous, and for years it followed her around and served as a major source of shame for her. She remembers walking in on Lindsay purging after eating dinner at a Mexican restaurant one time, though Lindsay assured her it was an accident and she’d just eaten too fast. Sam also recognizes that Lindsay’s inner demons—including her parents’ messy divorce, her less-than-perfect first time having sex, and her insecurities about the unforgiving nature of the social climate at Thomas Jefferson—are more serious than her fearless best friend ever lets on.
By the end of the novel, Sam has decided to dump Rob Cokran after realizing that she has had long-dormant feelings for her childhood sweetheart, Kent McFuller. After bonding with him at his house party, Sam understands that Kent alone can see the real her, and that the silly, pointless social cliques that have kept them separate all these years are ultimately inconsequential. As Sam begins to follow her heart and flout social norms, she finds herself deepening the friendships she has with Lindsay, Ally, and Elody, and forging new ones with Kent and several other “outcasts” at school. She even makes efforts to become closer to the socially isolated but deeply sensitive oddball Juliet Sykes—and she does it all in order to set things right and try to show her friends and classmates that there is more to life than popularity.
Though at first Sam is reluctant to accept the fact that she is stuck in a time loop, slowly but surely she begins to see that there is a chance each day to make connections she’d never made before, befriend even the most unlikely souls, and transcend the simultaneously rigid and fragile boundaries of status and social class in order to better the lives of everyone in her school and teach even her stuck-up, status-obsessed friends that there is more to high school than seeming cool. Sam comes to understand that it is only through connecting deeply with others and performing acts of empathy and goodwill that a life is made whole. Although in the end she must rise to meet her devastating fate—sacrificing herself for Juliet Sykes—she does so having mended relationships with those she’d once hurt, stood up to those who hurt her, and made her life, in its final “days,” whole through acts of kindness toward others.
Popularity, Status, and Social Capital ThemeTracker
Popularity, Status, and Social Capital Quotes in Before I Fall
“Last year I got twenty-two roses.” Lindsay flicks her cigarette butt out of the window and leans over for a slurp of coffee. “I’m going for twenty-five this year.”
Each year before Cupid Day the student council sets up a booth outside the gym. For two dollars each, you can buy your friends Valograms—roses with little notes attached to them—which then get delivered by Cupids (usually freshman or sophomore girls trying to get in good with the upperclassman) throughout the day.
“I’d be happy with fifteen,” I say. It’s a big deal how many roses you get. You can tell who’s popular and who isn’t by the number of roses they’re holding. It’s bad if you get under ten and humiliating if you don’t get more than five—it basically means that you’re either ugly or unknown. Probably both. Sometimes people scavenge for dropped roses to add to their bouquets, but you can always tell.
The point is, we can do [embarrassing] things. You know why? Because we’re popular. And we’re popular because we can get away with everything. So it’s circular. I guess what I’m saying is there’s no point in analyzing it. If you draw a circle, there will always be an inside and an outside, and unless you’re a total nut job, it’s pretty easy to see which is which. I’m not going to lie, though. It’s nice that everything’s easy for us. It’s a good feeling knowing you can basically do whatever you want. […] And believe me: I know what it’s like to be on the other side. I was there for the first half of my life. The bottom of the bottom, lowest of the low. I know what it’s like to have to squabble and pick and fight over the leftovers. So now I have first pick of everything. So what. That’s the way it is. Nobody ever said life was fair.
Lindsay, Ally, Elody and I are as close as you can be, but there are still some things we never talk about. For example, even though Lindsay says Patrick is her first and only, this isn’t technically true. Technically, her first was a guy she met at a party when she was visiting her stepbrother at NYU. They smoked pot, split a six-pack, and had sex, and he never knew she hadn’t done it before. We don’t talk about that. We don’t talk about the fact that we can never hang out at Elody’s house after five o’clock because her mother will be home, and drunk. We don’t talk about the fact that Ally never eats more than a quarter of what’s on her plate, even though she’s obsessed with cooking and watches the Food Network for hours on end. We don’t talk about the joke that for years trailed me down hallways, into classrooms, and on the bus, that wove its way into my dreams: “What’s red and white and weird all over? Sam Kingston!” And we definitely don’t talk about the fact that Lindsay was the one who made it up. A good friend keeps secrets for you. A best friend helps you keep your own secrets.
Anna’s face gets serious, and she takes a long pull of the joint, then stares at me through the cloud of blue smoke.
“So,” she says, “why do you guys hate me?”
Of all the things I expect her to say, it’s not this. Even more unexpected, she holds the spliff out in my direction, offering me some. I hesitate for only a second. Hey, just because I’m dead doesn’t mean I’m a saint.
“We don’t hate you.” It doesn’t come out convincingly. The truth is I’m not sure. I don’t hate Anna, really; Lindsay’s always said she does, but it’s hard to know what Lindsay’s reasons are for anything. […]
“Then what’s the reason?” She doesn’t say, For all the shitty things you’ve done. For the bathroom graffiti. For the fake email blast sophomore year: Anna Cartullo has chlamydia. She doesn’t have to. She passes the joint back to me. I take another hit. […] “I don’t know.” Because it’s easy. “I guess you need to take things out on somebody. The words are out of my mouth before I realize they’re true.
Ally takes a sip of the vodka she’s holding, then winces. “Lindsay was freaking out. I told you, she was really upset.”
“It's true though, isn't it? What I said.”
“It doesn't matter if it’s true.” Ally shakes her head. “She's Lindsay. She's ours. We're each other's, you know?”
I’ve never thought of Ally as smart, but this is probably the smartest thing I’ve heard in a long time.
“I thought Cupid Day was one of your favorites.”
“It is. Or, I mean, it was.” I sit up on my elbows. “I don’t know, it’s kind of stupid, if you think about it.”
[My mom] raises her eyebrows.
I start rattling on, not really thinking about what I want to say before I say it. “The whole point is just to show other people how many friends you have. But everybody knows how many friends everybody else has. And it’s not like you actually get more friends this way or, I don’t know, get closer to the friends you do have.”
My mom smiles a tiny bit. “Well, you’re lucky to have very good friends, and to know it. I’m sure the roses are very meaningful to some people.”
“I’m just saying, the whole thing is kind of sleazy.”
“This doesn’t sound like the Samantha Kingston I know.”
“Yeah, well, maybe I’m changing.” I don’t mean those words either, until I hear them. Then I think that they might be true, and I feel a flicker of hope. Maybe there’s still a chance for me, after all. Maybe I have to change.
It amazes me how easy it is for things to change, how easy it is to start off down the same road you always take and wind up somewhere new. Just one false step, one pause, one detour, and you end up with new friends or a bad reputation or a boyfriend or a breakup. It’s never occurred to me before; I’ve never been able to see it. And it makes me feel, weirdly, like maybe all of these different possibilities exist at the same time, like each moment we live has a thousand other moments layered underneath it that look different. Maybe Lindsay and I are best friends and he hate each other, both. Maybe I’m only one math class away from being a slut like Anna Cartullo. Maybe I am like her, deep down. Maybe we all are: just one lunch period away from eating alone in the bathroom. I wonder if it’s ever really possible to know the truth about someone else, or if the best we can do is just stumble into each other, heads down, hoping to avoid collision.
The wind shrieks, and I suddenly realize that Juliet's only a half inch from the road, teetering on the thin line where the pavement begins, like she's balancing on a tightrope.
“Maybe you should come away from the road,” I say, but all the time in the back of my head, there’s an idea growing and swelling, a horrible, sickening realization, massing up and taking shape like clouds on the horizon. Someone calls my name again. And then, still in the distance, I hear the throaty wail of “Splinter” by Fallacy pumping from someone's car.
“Sam! Sam!” I recognize it as Kent's voice now.
Juliet turns to face me then. She’s smiling, but it's the saddest smile I’ve ever seen.
“Maybe next time,” she says. “But probably not.”
[Lindsay] doesn't hate [Juliet.] She's afraid of her. Juliet Sykes, the keeper of Lindsay’s oldest, maybe her worst, secret. And it all seems absurd now, the chance and randomness of it. One person shoots up and the other spirals downward—random and meaningless. As simple as being in the right place, or the wrong place, or however you want to look at it. As simple as getting a craving for Diet Pepsi one day at a pool party, and getting swept away; as simple as not saying no.
“Why didn't you say anything?” I ask, even though I already know the answer. My voice comes out hoarse from the effort of swallowing back tears.
Juliet shrugs. “She was my best friend, you know? She was always so sad back then.” Juliet makes a noise that could be a laugh or a whimper. “Besides,” she says more quietly, “I thought it would pass.”
At the same time the more I think about it […] the angrier I get. This is my life: the whole big, sprawling mess of my life in all its possibilities—first kisses and last kisses and college and apartments and marriage and fights and apologies and happiness—brought to a point, a second, an edge of a second, razored off in that final moment by Juliet’s last act: her revenge against us, against me. The farther I get from the party, the more I think, No. It can't happen this way. No matter what we did, it can't happen this way.
She wants me to tell her it’s okay. She needs me to tell her that. I can’t, though. Instead I say, quietly, “People would like you anyway, Lindz.” I don’t say, if you stopped pretending so much, but I know she understands. “We’d still love you no matter what.”