Crash and burn: "Before the Fall" by Noah Hawley

Book: Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

Release date: May 31, 2016

Pages: 400

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Thriller

Rating: ★★★

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.

With chapters weaving between the aftermath of the crash and the backstories of the passengers and crew members—including a Wall Street titan and his wife, a Texan-born party boy just in from London, a young woman questioning her path in life, and a career pilot—the mystery surrounding the tragedy heightens. 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.

Amid pulse-quickening suspense, the fragile relationship between Scott and the young boy glows at the heart of this stunning novel, raising questions of fate, human nature, and the inextricable ties that bind us together. 

Let's play another round of "can Liz avoid spoiling this book when almost everything worth discussing about the book is a spoiler?" But really, how can I discuss Before the Fall without saying too much, when what drove me to read it was what ended up disappointing me? What propelled me forward was the hype, the knowledge that a big reveal was coming heightening the experience. More than anything, power of suggestion affected my experience of this story. And the suggestions, perhaps intentionally, steered me wrong.

The problem for me with this book is that you expect it to be one thing, and it's something else entirely. Re-reading the jacket copy, I can't say I felt "pulse-quickening suspense" because it only became a "thriller" for me in the last 50 pages. Instead of a proper mystery, Before the Fall is a series of character studies that looks into the hearts of even periphery players. It's an examination of privilege and ambition, a full-throated criticism of sensationalist media and toxic masculinity, and a meditation on human interactions and their significance. These are the areas where this tale excels.

The structure of this book was one of the hooks, and it was well done. Each new character study was an intimate portrait that added another layer to the story, providing a clue or misdirection. Every character was fascinating, from the investigators on the case to the heiress letting Scott hide from the media in her home (while trying to seduce him) to, weirdly, Jack LaLanne, who figures pretty prominently in all this. The backstories of all the crash victims were so interesting. All sorts of quirky details abound. There's the pilot who was raised in a cult. The bodyguard elevated to legend for his rumored exploits, lovers and survived traumas. The head of a conservative news giant and a shady Wall Street magnate who show just some of the ways ambition can go wrong. The flight attendant with a terrifying love life.

But the star of the show is Scott, and he's kind of an odd duck. Like the more privileged characters, his life has been defined by his ambitions, but it's the other side of the coin — his unmet ambitions, his failure to launch. Overnight he becomes a hero after saving a little boy, JJ, in the aftermath of the crash. He's forced by growing notoriety to go toe-to-toe with Bill Cunningham, the star anchor of the network built by one of the victims. Cunningham is a miserable son of a bitch. There are unlikable characters with redeeming qualities and complex motivations, and then there are unrepentant monsters like Cunningham. I felt disgusted every time he was in a scene and couldn't read fast enough to get away from him. Cunningham is convinced the plane was downed by a conspiracy, or terrorism, that it was a targeted attack on a conservative icon. Tragedy is not enough of a story. He even implicates Scott — who is this nobody and why was he on the plane? And the subject of Scott's paintings doesn't make him look innocent, either.

So there are these amazing characters, all this buildup, so many theories ... and then the ending just felt rushed and flat. I expected to be blown away. Instead, I was groaning. There was one stunning, exciting confrontation at the end that had me cheering, but mostly, the end just felt like the author was trying to wrap things up quickly, and I was a bit confused about who found out what and when.

Is Before the Fall worthy of its hyped summer blockbuster status? It wasn't for me, but it really depends on what you expect. Go in with it for the characters, not the mystery, and you'll have a much more enjoyable time.