Sunday, October 12, 2014
Book Review: "If I Stay" by Gayle Forman
Seventeen-year-old, Mia Hall, wakes up on a snow day from school surrounded by her now-tame punk rock parents, that sound a bit like Northwestern hipsters, and her adoring younger brother Teddy. It's Mia's senior year of high school and she views her family's warmth and eccentricity as one of the things she will miss most if she ends up going to college at Julliard in a few months. The family decides to take advantage of their stolen day off from the responsibilities of life, like giddy children, and use it to visit with friends and family in their Oregon hometown.
Mia remembers traveling the winding roads with that familiar sound of familial chatter and classical music, and the next thing she knows she's observing the devastation in gruesome detail of a car accident that has killed her parents and left she and her brother in critical condition. Mia's out-of-body experience, told in first person, allows the reader a window into the unknown. What level of awareness and consciousness does someone maintain while lingering somewhere between life and death?
The narrative moves back and forth from Mia's observation of her body's waning resilience in the hospital to her life and her most recent emotional history. Mia is an introverted cello playing prodigy riding the remainder of her senior year of High School after the performance of her life at her audition for Julliard. However, Julliard would take her away from her family who are all described in a way that builds their characters as so lovingly eccentric that you can'y help but envy Mia their parental "coolness." And even more achingly painful, Julliard would take Mia away from Adam, her rock star boyfriend making his musical impact in the Portland music scene. Mia affectionately recalls the tender evolution of her love for Adam, and how she feels the weight of the decision she has to make about her future the most when she is with him.
The decision in her coming-of-age arc pales to the depth of the life of death decision she faces as an out of body consciousness. Mia isn't religious, so their is no imposed spiritualism about the afterlife, but there is the very obvious recognition that if she leaves her broken body behind she will be with her family, besides - how could she return to life without them? This is where things get interesting, because Mia had more or less decided to already leave her family to go to college across the country. It's an interesting parallel, and it makes Mia's decision even more complex.
If she stays, Mia will have to bear the emotional pain of the loss of her family and the pain of her physical recovery. As her resolve to stay weakens, so does her ethereal presence in the hospital as she observes her body and the friends and family that flock to her and beg her to stay, or in some cases, giver her permission to leave. Even Adam's presence presents complications, because if she stays, she would lose him in a completely different way if she moved to New York to pursue her calling as a classical cellist.
I won't give the story away, because everyone should experience the end and draw their own conclusions. However, I will say that though the denouement happens a bit quickly, I appreciated the elements that came together to make Mia arrive at her decision.
If you like YA fiction, especially the sentimental variety akin to The Fault in Our Stars then this is definitely a story that will pull at the heart strings. If I Stay possesses enough depth not to be considered sappy and the back and forth narrative structure is so successfully composed that the journey through Mia's life feels seamless in its transitions. Forman is able to coax a lot from each scene, endearing these characters to not only Mia, but to readers.
There are a few stereotypes, especially concerning musical choices and influence, but Forman makes the musical theme work well as the string that ties all these characters to each other and ultimately, to life.
Initially, I thought there was going to be more about Mia and Adam and the depth of their relationship, but I think it served the story to not make it overly romantic. Mia is only seventeen after all, and even though she and Adam are in love they are also at the beginning of their adult lives, and this is an important message in and of itself. If I Stay reaches beyond the confines of young love and college decisions and brings readers into the realm of questioning what life is and what death means, which builds a rapport through the basis of the human condition. It lacked some of John Green's high brow witticisms, but packed a lot of heart.