When searching for a new book to read, one often refers to the reviews printed on the back (and sometimes the front, if the author is feeling a little smug) cover. If a particular novel is smattered with positive reviews from big-name institutions, accomplished authors, or simply a multitude of sources, one can almost always safely assume that the read will be worth their time. Naturally, as one does when browsing at a bookstore for four hours, a person comes across many such novels, bejeweled with praise, and must decide which of these adventures to embark upon. Noah Hawley’s novel, Before the Fall, certainly has no shortage of positive reviews; both the front and back cover display a myriad of accolades. Even the first five pages are utilized in an attempt to inform potential readers that this writer is fantastic, albeit a bit cocky, as they, too, are filled with acclaim for the work.
Sadly, despite all of the recognition Hawley has received by critics for his novel, it was disappointing. The novel begins with painter Scott Burroughs boarding the private airplane of David Bateman, a media mogul, his wife Maggie, and their two children, JJ (age four) and Rachel (age nine), as well as the family’s bodyguard, ex-military man Gil Baruch. Also on the plane are Ben Kipling, a powerful CEO, and his wife Sarah, in addition to the flight crew composed of pilot James Melody, co-pilot Charlie Busch, and flight attendant Emma Lightner. The plane’s scheduled journey, a quick hop from Martha’s Vineyard to mainland New York, is interrupted when it nosedives into the ocean, the force of the fall pulling apart the plane’s structure and throwing Scott and JJ into the water, while dragging the remaining passengers into the murky depths. Scott then locates JJ and manages to swim the 15 miles back to shore with a four-year-old clinging to his neck. The two arrive on a beach and must make sense of the tragedy that they were a part of, all while battling the media’s attempts to twist the story into one of sabotage, of which the prime suspect is Scott.
As the novel unfolds, Hawley alternates chapters between Scott’s present and the past of each character killed during the crash. Soon it is evident that David Bateman’s empire has resulted in many enemies, all of which would benefit if David were to be erased. Likewise, illegal activity propelled Ben Kipling’s success, so much so that he was scheduled to meet with the CIA soon after his return to New York. The executives’ wives are mere accessories to their husbands. Throughout the rest of the novel, Hawley accomplishes little if no character development as Scott, FBI agent O’Brien, and flight specialist Gus Franklin attempt to piece together the lives of the deceased in an attempt to pinpoint the cause of the crash, all whilst government teams scour the ocean floor in search of the downed aircraft. Scott, a recovering alcoholic whose chance at successful painting has long passed by, begins painting again, relying on friends for housing and shelter from the accusatory press.
Hawley attempts unsuccessfully to breathe new life into tired, old character tropes: the has-been painter, the powerful big-wigs with much-younger trophy wives who are irrelevant to the plot. What he lacks in character depth, Hawley fails to make up in drive. Before the Fall drags on with no clear intent. In highlighting the lives of the deceased before the crash, Hawley narrates with so little charisma that it forces readers to question whether or not he believes in his own work, whether he is invested his own characters. Everything about this novel is surface-level; it is dismally lacking in the depth necessary for a plot-driven suspense, while also displaying a scarcity in character complexity required for a character-driven thriller. The only aspect of the novel that propels one to finish it is the obligatory feeling of needing to find out why the plane went down.
The novel does finish with what many critics refer to as a twist-ending, and it is true that the finale is nearly impossible to preemptively determine, but for all the wrong reasons. Having laid the foundation for a possible complicated espionage or money-driven takedown scheme, Hawley chooses to ignore the potential for a finish worthy of wow, instead opting for a trivial conclusion that offers no real resolution. Overall, Hawley’s Before the Fall employs burned-out archetypes to create a dragging, unenthusiastic quasi-thriller whose dramatic finish could not be more unrelated to the thinly executed plot.