Review of If I Stay
Even though I’ve been wanting to read If I Stay for a long time, I’ll admit that I almost didn’t buy it after seeing a blurb on the front cover that read “Will appeal to fans of Stephenie Meyer’s TWILIGHT.” And though, according to the back of the book, If I Stay has been compared to Twilight a lot, I am happy to say that I see no resemblance.
If I Stay, by Gayle Forman, is a refreshingly real book. Everything about it- the story, the main character’s voice, her musings, and the emotions she goes through- are believable and so well-written that you feel them in your gut.
The main character, Mia, is a seventeen year-old who comes from a loving family. She’s an exceptionally talented cellist, waiting for an almost certain acceptance to Juilliard, and she has a great best friend and an amazing boyfriend whose own musical talents have helped his band achieve national fame. Then, one day, that’s all taken away when Mia and her family cheerfully head off to visit some friends on a snowy morning and are hit by a truck. Her parents are killed instantly, and Mia and her seven year-old brother Teddy are rushed to the hospital where both lives hang in the balance. The story is told by a Mia living outside her unconscious body, and she observes everything that is happening to and around her as a semi-specter. In this state, she is able to watch the world around her and consider what life will be like if she decides to hang on, to regain consciousness and heal as best she can in a world with no parents and possibly no little brother and a romantic relationship that’s already on the rocks. She is in charge of the choice, and wouldn’t it be easier just to let go?
This is one of those books that had me crying on the subway and not caring because there was no way the tears would stop even if I did. Forman has a great sense of pace and reveal; the scene where the accident happens is perfectly done. Many people, and therefore many storytellers, see it as intensely tragic when a person loses someone and regrets that the last words that they exchanged were in anger. Forman takes the opposite tact- Mia and her family are incredibly happy and loving, and that makes the heartbreak all that much worse when specter-Mia observes her dead parents on the side of the road. The morning of the accident, the family is excited that a snow day has been declared for both school and work even though there’s barely a dusting on the ground. Every member of the family has a part in the funny, light banter. As they get ready to leave, Mia takes in her father’s sports coat and wingtipped shoes. “Dressed for the snow, I see,” she teases. Her father answers, “I’m like the post office. Neither sleep nor rain nor half an inch of snow will compel me to dress like a lumberjack.”
It’s moments like these that the reader remembers as they watch Mia find her parents after the accident: I see Dad first. Even from several feet away, I can make out the protrusion of the pipe in his jacket pocket. “Dad,”I call, but as I walk toward him, the pavement grows slick and there are gray chunks of what looks like cauliflower. I know what I’m seeing but it somehow does not immediately connect back to my father… Pieces of my father’s brain are on the asphalt. But his pipe is in his left breast pocket. I find Mom next. There’s almost no blood on her, but her lips are already blue and the whites of her eyes are completely red, like a ghoul from a low-budget monster movie. She seems totally unreal.
Occasionally, reading this book made me so sad that I actually felt sick. It’s one thing to read a book about a girl who wakes up after an accident to discover that she’s the only one in her family left, but to watch Mia’s family come to visit her, to observe her boyfriend too scared to look at her lying in her hospital bed, her best friend’s incredible support and bravery, and how Mia vacillates between wanting to stay and feel things, and knowing that she can’t stay because it means she will feel things… these are all things that hopefully none of us will ever have to go through ourselves.
Forman makes these moments even more poignant by lacing them with flashbacks. While the bad memories of fights with her boyfriend, confusion about moving three thousand miles away for college, and Mia’s questions of her own talents are far outweighed by the good memories of her charmed life, it’s easy to see why it might be the simpler choice for Mia to let herself die. If she had such a great life before the accident, the life afterward is going to be hell.
The flashbacks are very telling of what Mia is thinking and comparing at any given point in the book, and my favorite flashback was one that features Mia and her boyfriend Adam. At the point of the flashback, Mia and Adam’s relationship has been very reserved, and Mia shocks both Adam and herself a few pages before by requesting that they take their intimacy further. This is where most teen books would cut to some frenzied removing of clothing and awkward sex, but Forman writes a far more sensual scene. Both characters remain clothed as Adam lays his head in Mia’s lap and says, “I want you to play me like a cello.” What begins with joking tweaks of his ears as if they were string pegs soon transforms into contact as intimate as sex, which continues when they switch places with Adam “playing” Mia as his beloved guitar. Forman chooses her words carefully, and the scene is much more meaningful and powerful than an awkward sex scene would have been.
The most standout aspect of the book is Mia’s voice. While YA authors have certainly gotten better at writing teenagers when the authors themselves are much older, there’s still the occasionally author that annoys me by watching teen sitcoms from decades past and thinking that weaving the kids’ syntax into their work will make them “hip.” Instead, it usually alienates actual teen readers and has caused me to close a book or two for good. Forman doesn’t fall into this trap. Mia’s voice is believable and completely her own. She speaks well, but still swears casually and throws in the occasional “like.” There are other characters whose voices are not quite as clear, but Forman has Mia down pat.
Mia’s reasonings of why she should live or die are very moving. Many times, her considerations are not for herself but for her family and friends. She thinks of how miserable her grandparents will be if she dies too, having just lost their son and daughter-in-law, but when she thinks of her best friend Kim, Mia thinks that maybe Kim will be strong enough to move on: Losing me will hurt; it will be the kind of pain that won’t feel real at first, and when it does, it will take her breath away. And the rest of her senior year will probably suck, what with her getting all that cloying your-best-friend’s-dead sympathy that will drive her so crazy […] But she’ll deal. She’ll move on. She’ll leave Oregon. She’ll go to college. She’ll make new friends. She’ll fall in love. She’ll become a photographer […] And I bet she’ll be a stronger person because of what she’s lost today. I have a feeling that once you live through something like this, you become a little bit invincible.
The one and only thing that bothered me about the book was that the present-day situation of Mia’s life hanging in the balance as she made her decision was supposed to be a twenty-four hour period. However, the book is long and with all of the flashbacks, it felt like Mia’s decision lasted a week at the least. Her experience being only a day didn’t ruin the story in any way, but each time I returned to a present day chapter and was given the time, I had to make a note that it was still the same day, even if it felt like two had gone by.
If I Stay is an incredibly moving and smart book. It’s tough to read, but that speaks for its merit and accuracy. I was pleased to discover that there is a sequel called Where She Went, and you bet I’m going to be buying that as soon as I am not so poor.
[The social worker] tells my grandparents that I am in “grave” condition. I’m not entirely sure what that means- grave. On TV, patients are always critical, or stable. Grave sounds bad. Grave is where you go when things don’t work out.
I don’t want to be in this suspended state where I can see what’s happening, where I’m aware of what I’m feeling without being able to actually feel it. I cannot scream until my throat hurts or break a window with my fist until my hand bleeds, or pull my hair out in clumps until the pain in my scalp overcomes the one in my heart.
I remember watching it all and getting that tickling in my chest and thinking to myself: This is what happiness feels like.