For the most part the author did a fine job balancing the coming of age and dark fiction components of the story. As some reviewers have noted, this isn’t a frightening read. In fact, I don’t think this is the intention of the author. Rather, he is trying to present a story of uncanny events within the context of a young adolescent’s tragic summer. Thirteen year old Ben is grieving the death of his best friend. Both boys were amateur filmmakers, making their own horror movie. With Johnny’s death, however, things come to a grinding halt as Ben is trying to make sense of things. With the untimely death of yet another 13-year-old boy in town, Ben has nightmares involving the two boys and then he begins to sense of their presence all around him during his waking hours. The creepiest feature in the story is when an image of the second dead kid appears in Ben’s latest film effort. This was a decent jolt within the story. By the way, I learned quite a bit about the making of short 8mm movies (the setting is 1985 – so no digital).
I struggled, however, with the characterizations. Characters should be internally consistent. That is, they should act, think, and feel in a reliable way based on how they are portrayed. If their behavior changes unpredictably to only serve the needs of the plot, then credibility is strained. Unfortunately, I think this happens fairly often in When We Fall. Ben is portrayed as a lonely, grieving, socially awkward, self-described dork. Yet, when the plot requires it, Ben begins speaking, behaving, and thinking like someone considerably more advanced. He handles romantic situations with aplomb (especially with an experienced older girl), drinks beer like a pro, verbally outwits bullying high school seniors with great comeback lines, and can out argue his parents with advanced-SAT level vocabulary.
Ben’s love interest is his (former) babysitter, 17 year old Aubrey. Initially portrayed as a good friend, Aubrey’s behavior is erratic and inconsistent. At times she is like a supportive, older sister while at other times she is coming on to a boy four years younger than her in manner that is a tad weird. Near the end of the story, Aubrey takes a dramatic course of action that is shocking for two reasons. One, you care about her as a character. But, more importantly, what makes this shocking is that the event is entirely unpredictable. It serves the plot well, but is ultimately unbelievable because there was nothing in her behavior to suggest anything like this would happen. There are other inconsistent characterizations in the novel among the secondary players. Ben’s mom goes from an overly protective mother (who wouldn’t be in a town where 13-year olds are dropping like flies) to a woman who willingly allows her kid to sneak out of his bedroom window at night (depending on the plot requirements). She also goes into uncontrolled rages in which she says the nastiest things about her son, while she will not speak up despite her reservations about her boy dating a much older girl. Aubrey’s ex-boyfriend is portrayed one moment as a cruel jerk and then at another as a sensitive, disarmingly friendly guy. Even the ghosts don’t play consistently to their true natures.
I’ve run on a bit about these inconsistent characterizations – only because I think they interfere with the author’s story. I seem to be in the minority, however. Other reviewers were not troubled by these issues. Therefore, you can take my comments with a grain of salt. So, where do I stand on When We Fall? Overall, I liked the story and the pacing. The general feel of a young teen’s world and his despair over losing his friend is nicely presented. I think the story would have had a greater impact had the characters not been sacrificed by plot needs. As it stands, it is a good read, a nice entry into the dark fiction, coming-of-age genre.