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Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Review of BEFORE THE FALL by Noah Hawley

3.5 Stars
Before the Fall by [Hawley, Noah]
This book has appeared on a number of summer reading lists, so I thought I’d add it to mine.  It proved to be an enjoyable psychological novel.

The book introduces us to David Bateman and his family.  He is a media mogul married to Maggie, a former teacher, and they have two children:  Rachel and JJ.  They board a private jet for a short trip from Martha’s Vineyard to New York City.  Travelling with them is Ben Kipling, a Wall Street player, and his wife Sarah.  Maggie also invited a friend and artist, Scott Burroughs, to take the plane since he too needed to get to New York.  A Bateman bodyguard, a flight attendant, and the pilot and co-pilot are the others onboard.  “[None] of them has any idea that sixteen minutes from [takeoff] their plane will crash into the sea.”  Only Scott and four-year-old JJ survive. 

The book then follows the investigation into the crash and also gives the back stories of each of the people on the plane.  There are various theories as to the cause - mechanical error, pilot error, sabotage, and terrorist attack – and all must be investigated.  However, a talk show commentator, Bill Cunningham, suggests a fifth theory centered on Scott.  Focusing only on ratings, he uses illegal methods to advance his theory. 

A major theme detailed is that of random coincidences.  In the opening, the author suggests, “How any two people end up in the same place at the same time is a mystery.”  Later, Scott muses, “Two things happen at the same time.  By mentioning them together they become connected.  Convergence.  It’s one of those things that feels meaningful, but isn’t.”  A major investigator scolds a colleague:  “’you just can’t accept that life is full of random coincidence, that not everything that seems meaningful is meaningful . . . ‘” And Scott tells Bill, “’The universe is filled with things that don’t make sense.  Random coincidences.’” 

The novel is definitely character driven.  The reader comes to know each of the passengers and crew as well as JJ’s aunt and uncle and Bill Cunningham.  Bill, who wears suspenders like Larry King, is a conservative commentator, similar to Bill O’Reilly of Fox News.  He is not beyond relying on half-truths to cast aspersions and ruin someone’s reputation though he makes comments like “’I’ll fight to the death before I let this administration take away our right to due process.’”  The character with whom I take exception is Doug, JJ’s uncle; everyone else is realistic, but he just doesn’t feel like a writer to me.  For instance, he doesn’t know the meaning of “pied-à-terre” but knows what a koan is?

Though there is suspense, I would not call this book a thriller.  The ending is not a surprise; in fact, the denouement is exactly like an actual 2015 event from the news, an event to which the chief investigator actually refers and which had regulatory agencies implementing new flight regulations.  From the beginning, the clues are just too obvious.

Despite its flaws, this book is indeed a good summer read.  It has sufficient suspense to keep the reader on task.  And I loved its skewering of archconservative media outlets and commentators.