Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Major spoilers in this review, because it’s more of an autopsy. I think After the Fall was dead on arrival for me.
The cover copy promises a kind of love triangle in which Raychel is sleeping with 2 brothers, Matt and Andrew. Now, I know that authors usually don’t write the cover copy, so I won’t blame Kate Hart for this. But I feel misled. Raychel is sleeping with Matt in the sense that sometimes they share a bed. She does have sex with Andrew, like once. So the book positions itself to be this dramatic love triangle, but it’s more like a mopefest in which Raychel is sad because she’s not happy, Matt is sad because he’s not boning Raychel the way he wants to, and Andrew is … actually, Andrew’s deal is less scrutable because we don’t get his perspective very often and he really only seems to exist as a foil to Matt and an alternative partner for Raychel.
If you can’t tell, I’m salty about a lot of stuff in this book, mostly because it set me up for such high hopes. And I’m not just talking about the cover copy.
Matt and Raychel are kind of best friends. From Matt’s perspective, he’s pretty sure on that. When we see Raychel’s perspective, I think she sees herself more like family. She likes both Matt and his brother Andrew (platonically), and in typical high school fashion, she’s oblivious to Matt’s romantic/sexual attraction to her. Raychel has sworn off high school guys; she’s sophisticated and only dates college guys. She and Matt also come from very different backgrounds: her mom is single and working class; his parents are university-educated, one a legal professor and the other a practising doctor. So while Raychel is worried about scrimping enough money to go to college out of state, Matt is more concerned about student council activities to pad his already impressive resumé. Andrew, we are told, is a stoner one grade junior who likes to be less responsible than Matt. As I previously mentioned, the book iterates through the 3 characters’ first person narration, but we mostly switch between Raychel and Matt and hear less often from Andrew.
Matt is overprotective of Raychel and somewhat overbearing. He’s always trying to tell her to buck up and look on the bright side as her mother’s money problems mount. Hart really wants us to understand that he’s a nice guy who’s just very wrapped up in his white, male, upper–middle class privilege. Raychel, on the other hand, who is also white but neither male nor upper–middle class, gets annoyed by Matt on an almost daily basis yet also seems happy to hang out with him and seek comfort from him.
To Hart’s credit—and this is probably why I’m not giving the book 1 star—I do see both points of view. I know what it’s like to watch your friend struggle with life and feel like you should be in a position to help them yet really have nothing to offer except encouragement. I also know what it’s like to feel like a friend isn’t understanding your situation because they don’t share the experience you’re living through. So I hope I’m not coming down inordinately on either of our protagonists, because I think they are equally terrible people.
The other respect in which After the Fall almost but doesn’t quite get it right would be with regards to its handling of rape. In two instances, a classmate named Carson forces Raychel to give him a blowjob. Raychel eventually tells a few people, most notably Matt’s lawyer mother, who lectures her on the nature of consent/assault, reassuring Raychel that this is not her fault, while also admitting Carson will never face ramifications in court if Raychel reported it. I applaud Hart for the way she sets up this subplot. I think Carson’s perspective—his complete obliviousness that he did anything wrong—is unfortunately all too realistic. Similarly, the way Raychel pulls away from people, even from Matt and Andrew, makes a lot of sense too. That’s the “almost” for me. The “doesn’t quite” would be the resolution, the way Raychel strikes back with a childish prank whose consequences are that Carson will have to take a women’s studies course in college next year, oh no!
There are also some conversations in English class about The Handmaid’s Tale and bodily autonomy that are meant to parallel what Raychel’s dealing with and highlight Matt’s masculine cluelessness. But I was uncomfortable, as a trans woman, with the way Hart handles these conversations. They feel boiled down in a gender essentialist way (and to be fair, the source material has similar issues). In the book’s rush to point out the power imbalance between cis men and cis women in our society, it either deliberately ignores or just forgets trans and non-binary folx, further pushing us to the margins in these important conversations.
This is something I’m encountering more and more in YA literature that tries to bring up sensitive topics through a feminist lens. The intent is there, and it is good. But the execution can over-simplify issues that ultimately take years for people to understand. I don’t know what the solution is; I’m not expecting a YA novel to somehow condense bell hooks and Judith Butler and all sorts of feminist theory into a single story that a teenage reader can easily digest. But I would like to see feminist YA fiction that acknowledges the diversity and intersectionality of women’s struggles, that doesn’t forget about other marginalized genders. (The book does feature two racialized women as side characters, one of whom we learn is in love with a Black man despite her Indian parents’ disapproval … again, this is another area in which After the Fall appears to be trying but never engages deeply enough with the issue to move beyond tokenism.)
And then there’s the twist.
I admit, I didn’t expect the eponymous fall to be, you know, a literal fall. So points to Hart for the surprise; you got me. I also think that the reactions of the various characters to Andrew’s death make a lot of sense—in particular, the way Matt’s mother ostracizes Raychel and also has trouble processing her grief in relation to Matt’s survival. Even Matt’s constant self-punishment and guilt is believable. I don’t think I would be able to forgive myself if I were even tangentially responsible for such an accident.
I also appreciate that Hart doesn’t have Raychel and Matt get together in the end. There is no happily ever after here, just ever after—they are the ones who survived, so they have to keep going. It is bleak and not super hopeful, I know, but it is the most appropriate ending for the kind of book After the Fall is.
Where the ending loses me is that it doesn’t actually result in change from any of the characters. Raychel continues to drink, party, and otherwise numb the pain of her problems. Matt continues to obsess over college admissions. No one really wants to talk about their feelings (although at least they’re all going to therapy now). Like I said, I didn’t expect or particularly want a happy ending, but I wanted more closure than I got here.
Finally, I just don’t appreciate that Andrew’s entire character was essentially one big plot device. As I mentioned near the beginning of the review, we don’t learn as much about him as Raychel and Matt. He exists to be someone Raychel can get close to in a way that Matt especially disapproves of. He’s a nice guy despite being irresponsible, we learn. And then Hart kills him off to make a point about grief and loneliness and privilege. RIP Andrew, you did not deserve your fate.
There is a good book somewhere inside this messy one. Although the frequent perspective changes sometimes threw me, overall I appreciated Hart’s narrative style. But there is just too much going on, too many issues dancing for my attention, too many serious ideas (and even characters) slipping from foreground into background such that they almost feel like a plot device. (I haven’t even mentioned the child abuse on the part of Raychel’s mom that’s entirely sidelined with a single conversation.) After the Fall wants to make us feel deeply for what these teenagers are going through. I felt. But I didn’t grow.