An excellent, gripping mystery
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.
This is a fantastic novel. I have very high hopes before reading Before the Fall, and I’m very happy to report that it exceeded my expectations. The story is told from a number of perspectives, each a passenger on the fateful flight. This is an excellent read, and certainly in my top five of the year (so far).
It is also a very difficult novel to review — given its structure, talking about the plot at any great length will ruin the plentiful surprises and reveals. The primary characters in the novel are the two survivors. While the boy barely speaks, Scott forms a shaky bond with him and the kid’s aunt. In the meantime, the celebrity they gain as survivors and (in Scott’s case) hero soon turns into suspicion and distrust, as a right-wing talking head (and colleague/friend of the boy’s father) launches a crusade against Scott, believing there to have been some grand conspiracy to bring the plane down. Through this character, we get a great examination of not just right-wing media, but media in general, as well as the ease with which public opinion can be shaped and twisted.
Scott is clearly suffering from a type of PTSD, and as a result some of the chapters from his perspective have a dreamlike quality, or the impression of mental fuzziness. The characters who enter his orbit are sometimes reprehensible, sometimes sympathetic and genuine. Hawley’s characters are all well-rounded, and their stories engaging — none felt one-dimensional, even if their presence was fleeting. The relationships and connections are built slowly (though the novel rattles along at a great pace), with each new perspective and flashback adding another layer or question to the story. I very much enjoyed the ending, too.
This is a great novel about human nature, curiosity, heartbreak, the strange connections people can form, and maybe also society today. Hawley’s prose is tight and very well-composed — brilliantly evoking the confusion, fear and stress during and immediately after the crash, as well as the calmer, quieter moments in the present and past.
I loved it, and even before I’d finished reading Before the Fall, I’d bought two more of Hawley’s novels (The Good Father and The Punch). I can easily see this book translating to the screen, as either a movie or mini-series (I think I’d prefer the latter).
Very highly recommended.