Book Review: Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

Before the Fall – Noah Hawley (Grand Central Publishing, 2016)

If there’s a lesson to be learned from Before the Fall, it might be “Don’t be fabulously rich because people will want to kill you.” Or, at the very least, “Don’t fly on private planes”.

The characters in Noah Hawley’s debut novel (to be released at the end of this month) are rich in a way that’s difficult to fathom. All except Scott Burroughs, a talented by unsuccessful painter who ends up catching a ride on a millionaire’s plane from Martha’s Vineyard to New York. When the plane goes down over the ocean, Scott is one of only two survivors. The other is J.J. – the four-year-old son of said millionaire.

In many ways, this is a mystery story. Why did the plane crash? Was it human error? A mechanical failure? Something more sinister? The search to answer these questions is the both the most interesting part of the book and, ultimately, the most disappointing. (More on that in a minute.)

The story goes back and forth between Scott dealing with the immediate aftermath of the crash – the public largely views him as a hero for saving J.J.’s life but the media wants to know why he was on that plane – and chapters detailing the backstories of individual characters.

There’s a lot to grab the reader’s interest and that central mystery will keep you pushing forward. The problem however is a lack of cohesiveness. Hawley spreads himself too thin. We really don’t need a chapter about the marriage and divorce of one of the official investigating the plane crash and we certainly don’t need to delve into the career of a TV aerobics instructor that Scott saw swim as a little boy, but we get it all for some reason. A tighter focus would have made this a much stronger novel – particularly one on Scott and J.J. and the boy’s family members who take him in, along with his millions of inherited dollars.

There’s also an interesting conversation here about news media and our 24-hour access to it that has potential but falls short. It would have been interesting if Hawley had further developed the plot around the conflict between Scott and newscaster Bill Cunningham but instead Cunningham is a flat character, existing only as the right wing bad guy with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

And, just as disappointing, the ending – that central mystery – is concluded in a way that has almost nothing to do with the rest of the novel. Which is certainly how real life often works but is entirely unsatisfying here and left me wondering what the point of this novel was.


8 thoughts on “Book Review: Before the Fall by Noah Hawley”

  1. Someone else just wrote a review of this same novel. It seems like the book is meant to be clad in mystery, but doesn’t sound nearly as mysterious as I think it’s advertised to be. Does the synopsis imply that artists have no value and would never be near a millionaire? It’s just a weird-sounding story.

    1. Yep. It’s a big point in the novel that the artist shouldn’t have been on the plane and no one understands why he’s there. The mystery angle is potentially really interesting with lots of opportunity for intrigue and topical discussion but it unfortunately falls short. Hawley is a TV writer and my impression is that he might be used to writing longer story arcs and so tried to cram too much into this novel.

  2. Sorry to hear you were disappointed, especially since I have it coming up soon on my reading list! I do get fed up with a lot of digressions in books – they usually work much better when they’re more tightly focused. Oh well – onwards and upwards!

    1. Maybe you’ll like it better than I did? I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts. Unfortunately, this book is almost nothing but digressions.

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