Wounding Others: A Review of ‘Falling into Place’

“No one heals himself by wounding another.”—Saint Ambrose

Suggested Grade Levels:

Grade 10-12

Review and Thoughts

I heard about Falling Into Place by Amy Zhang from the HarperCollins Common Core Reading List recommendations for high school students.  I feel like the increase in contemporary literature in today’s high schools can really help students find that love of reading that they may have lost.  At this age most students have been reading classic literature and may have had trouble connecting with it.   Unfortunately, along with contemporary literature comes a lot of contemporary issues.  I, in no way, ever condone banning a book, but there are times I feel like some literature may not be the best fit for a classroom setting.  I would strongly advise parents to look for an alternative contemporary piece.  I think Zhang’s writing is truly poetic and beautiful, but this book does not portray much goodness in its characters.  I understand that teens are bombarded with these issues in media and even in their own schools, but this doesn’t necessarily mean we need to teach it in our classrooms as well.

This story begins with a suicide by the main character, Liz Emerson.  She decides to drive her car off the road and crash below to make it look like an accident.  She plans it as best she can using her limited knowledge of physics, but it doesn’t end well and she ends up barely alive in the hospital.  Her relationship with her mother is distant, so it is difficult for her mom to accept what has happened.  Her two best friends are obviously devastated, but the rest of her acquaintances from school feign devastation.  As she points out, “most of them aren’t crying for her.  They’re crying for themselves, for fear of death, for the loss of faith in their own invincibility, because if Liz Emerson is mortal, they all are.”

The non-linear plot adds to the strong story-telling for the majority of the novel.  The beginning is quite shocking and serves as a great attention-grabber and readers want to find out why she felt such despair.  Zhang spins the story of the lives that were ruined by Liz Emerson and her inability to make amends for what she’s done any other way…according to her.  The story says, “Some nights, Liz looked back and counted the bodies, all those lives she had ruined by existing.  So she chose to stop existing.”  Liz always seems to choose the easy way out.

We find that Liz wasn’t always a “mean girl”, but tragedy happened when she was a young child and she learned from other “mean girls” that you can become someone special when you tear others down.  She learned how to find people’s weakest points and exploit them and mercilessly tear them down.  This all begins in middle school when she learns from another bully in her class what to do. When presented with the opportunity to do something right, she chooses to join in with others thereby giving more power to the bully.  She talks about the silence of the kids in school that gives the bullies their power.  When she moves to a new school she uses her past observations to become the bully herself.  Unfortunately, Liz is not a likeable character.  She has had a terrible event happen in her past and her mother has, for all intents and purposes, left her to raise herself, but this does not justify the carelessness she has for others’ lives.

I believe there is value to the novel.  Its protagonist and other main characters are the “mean girls” of high school which offers a rare glimpse into their lives.  Since one of the benefits of studying literature is to look at the nature of humanity, it creates an intriguing opportunity to delve into the background of these girls.  We find that they are human, too.  We find the reason behind their cruelty.  And we can find reason to love them.

I appreciate the perspective from which the story is told.  The narrator is (SPOILER ALERT) Liz’s guardian angel who also acts as a sort of conscience for Liz.  As she matures, she leaves her angel “behind the couch” and forgets all that her angel has lead her to do.  When she tries to kill herself, her angel appears with her again telling her she is still alive and hoping that she survives.

Unfortunatley, I feel the ending of the novel is too fast.  The lead up to the end is well told, again the author spins the tale well.  Regrettably, the end is told through a short epilogue and doesn’t seem to do justice to Liz’s redemption as it did to her downward spiral.

Overall, the novel will probably appeal to many young people, but it is important for parents to have discussions with their teens about the issues in the book.  This is a novel that, standing alone, will just fill a person’s mind with more of the constant immorality we see on TV and in movies.  It is through Catholic discussion teens may be able to work through the issues presented.

Possible Issues

  • The story begins with the main character attempting suicide.
  • The description of her body after the accident could be considered graphic.
  • The main character is bulimic and talks about how great it feels to purge.
  • The main character likes to drink and drinks and drives.
  • The main character talks about grinding on boys at parties.
  • One of the main character’s neighbors is watching her try on different bathing suits in her room so she flips him off.
  • The main character talks about getting drunk for the first time as a freshman in high school.
  • The main character talks about a friend “riding” her boyfriend.
  • Throughout the book, the main character talks about hooking up with random guys she meets at parties. At one party, she can’t even see the guy’s face because she’s so drunk.
  • There is a lot of swearing throughout the entire novel.
  • The parties the main character and her friends attend have marijuana and she talks about getting high.
  • The main character is a “mean girl” and has treated many people horribly to the point that she has ruined their reputations and their lives.
  • The main character makes the idea of committing suicide seem beautiful at some points.
  • The main character and her friends try a “white powdery substance” and one of her friends becomes an addict.
  • The main character overhears a store manager refuse to hire a girl because she is too heavy to fit in the clothes that the store sells.
  • The main character goes through a list of classmates that she has ruined socially.
  • The main character has a terrible relationship with her mother.
  • The boys on the basketball time threaten sexual assault on a female basketball player who is a lesbian. Graphic remarks are exchanged.
  • The main character convinces her friend to have an abortion.

Further Discussion

  • Talk to the kids about the dangers of suicide.  Use this reference from Focus on the Family to help discuss teen suicide.
  • Kennie does not want to have an abortion, but she feels her parents will kick her out and not help her with the baby.  This, along with the pressure from Liz, is why she ultimately chooses abortion.  We should know that Maggie’s Place is an organization that will help women who are in this situation.  They will take women in, offer counseling, provide housing, help them find jobs, and help after they have the baby for a bit of time as well.  Find out more about Maggie’s Place and ways to help.
  • After Kennie has her abortion she suffers greatly.  She needs counseling and support.  Rachel’s Vineyard is known for post-abortive healing.  Find out ways you can contribute to Rachel’s Vineyard.
  • There are several instances of bullying in the novel.  Most instances are brought about by Liz and her friends, but there are a few other horrible examples from other people.  In fact, at one point, the boys’ basketball team is harassing a young woman and the coach pretends not to hear.  Bullying occurs everywhere.  Here are 20 things a school can do to help prevent this kind of bullying.

Catholic Resources

  • Read about the patron saint of drug addiction, St. Maximilian Kolbe.
  • Say a prayer for people who suffer from suicidal thoughts.
  • Say a prayer for mothers, doctors, and children who are “pre-born” or who are in danger of being aborted.
  • Read about all of the issues mentioned in the book, and what the Catholic Church teaches about them by reading the breakdown of the fifth commandment in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  Almost every issue is touched by this one commandment.

General Teaching Resources