I love when I read a mystery or thriller that is so tightly structured and interestingly written that it stays with me for days and sometimes weeks after I finish it. Noah Hawley’s novel, Before The Fall, was that kind of book for me.
The novel pulled me in both because of the swimming angle and the idea of chance and paths crossing. A private plane going from Martha’s Vineyard to New York City crashes into the ocean. Twelve people get on the plane (including the crew) but only two survive—Scott Burroughs, a down-on-his-luck painter who is just starting to turn his life around, and four-year-old, JJ Bateman, the son of a media mogul who works for a Fox-like news network. It is a total matter of chance that Scott is on the plane at all—invited that morning by JJ’s mother, Maggie, after they strike up a casual friendship based on a series of farmer’s market conversations. Scott almost doesn’t make it to the airport because the taxi he ordered doesn’t initially arrive, but he does, and his fate is sealed as the doors close behind him. However, the other chance factor at play is that Scott is an avid open-water swimmer, inspired as a kid by seeing Jack LaLanne swim from Alcatraz to the beach at Aquatic Park. Recently, Scott had turned to swimming as a way to stop drinking and start painting again. You can see where this going, right? Scott survives the initial crash, as does JJ, and he and the boy are eventually able to make it to shore, thanks to Scott’s swimming ability (and astronavigation skills*).
Of course, that’s where things really get interesting. Hawley creates one plot that moves forward in time—following the aftermath of the crash involving both Scott and the boy (who is often referred to as “the boy” and not “JJ.”) We are introduced to Eleanor, JJ’s aunt, who becomes his guardian and whose husband, Doug, is unnervingly interested in the vast fortune JJ stands to inherit. We also meet Gus, the NTSB agent, who is tasked with finding out why the OSPRY 700SL plunged into the ocean only 16 minutes after takeoff. However, at the same time, Hawley explores the back story of each of the other passengers on the plane, moving us closer and closer to understanding what actually happened to cause the crash.
On the very first page, as the omniscient narrator introduces the reader to the plane and the crew, he says (and I feel like it’s a he):
Everyone has their path. The choices they’ve made. How any two people end up in same place at the same time is a mystery. You get on an elevator with a dozen strangers. You ride a bus, you wait in line for the bathroom. It happens every day. To try to predict the places we’ll go and the people we’ll meet would be pointless.
It might be pointless to try to predict but Hawley’s explorations of those intersecting paths in hindsight makes for an engaging and memorable read.
*As an open-water swimmer, this book made me realize that I need to take an astronavigation class because I might have been able to swim the distance Scott did, but I would probably have ended up swimming in the wrong direction.