In The Undoing Project, Michael Lewis explains how psychologists Kahneman and Frederickson demonstrated the peak-end rule – that when we remember an experience we give undue prominence to how it ends. And that’s why I’m probably going to be more critical of this book than it deserves.
Scott is a not-quite-successful artist spending the summer on Martha’s Vineyard when he is offered a lift back to New York on the private plane of an acquaintance. She is married to the plane’s owner, who runs a right-wing cable network. Also travelling are their two children, their friend, a hedge fund billionaire and his wife, and the crew and security staff.
The plane crashes over the water, and only Scott and four-year-old JJ survive. The rest of the book follows the story of Scott after the crash interspersed with flashbacks to the stories of the other characters immediately before the flight. Scott has to come to terms with his own experience, his new found celebrity, and the ongoing investigation. Meanwhile we try and get a sense of what might have happened in the past to lead to this horrific event.
The endings to the two stories are also intercut: the revelation about the last moments of the plane and a denouement in the present for Scott. The problem for me is that it becomes clear what has happened to the plane some time earlier, both because of the way the story is structured and through some over-zealous seeding. I kept hoping it was ingenious misdirection and there would be some other, more brilliant revelation that I hadn’t even thought of, but there wasn’t. Or that perhaps the ‘who’ was obvious, but the ‘why’ surprisingly complex, but that wasn’t it either.
So we find out (or have confirmed) whodunnit just as there is a more interesting story developing in the present, but then the narrative breaks away to the past, to give you the back story of the crash (which is just exposition now) and your eyes are skimming and it’s not raising the tension, it’s just slowing things down, and then you get back to the present drama and it’s all a bit rushed and confused and then it’s the end. And you suspect it’s the author who’s in a hurry, rather than the characters.
The sad thing is that this then leads me to think of other things that I might have let pass, like the fact that the cable TV mogul and the hedge fund billionaire are quite stereotypical (which may be realistic but isn’t good drama) or that the characters all come with backstories too neatly formulated to suggest they could be either perpetrator or target of the plane crash (which is good drama but not realistic). Or the fact that all the women in the story are only there because of their relationship to the male protagonists, and it feels like the author’s default setting rather than social commentary.
So here is the nice bit after the negativity. Scott is a great character. I did find myself really engaged in his story. The author has some interesting things to say about the nature of perception and reality and I really enjoyed the contrasting world-views of Scott the artist and Gus, the engineer who is called on to investigate the crash, a man on his own journey towards realising that not everything in life can be quantified. The author has a real sympathy for the vulnerable, and a sense of significance of small interactions between characters. His drawing of the relationship between Scott and JJ is particularly moving.
The aftermath of the crash, when Scott and JJ are in the water, is gripping and beautifully written. You’re immersed in the Atlantic cold, the fog, the sense of dislocation, as you wonder, what would I do? How would I cope? How can they possibly get out of this?
I’m glad they made it. I just wish it hadn’t ended that way…
I received a copy of Before the Fall from the publisher via Netgalley.
View Before the Fall on Goodreads
Enjoyed this? Try my review of The Nix by Nathan Hill.