If I Stay
by Gayle Forman
If you’re on the brink of death, do you get to decide which way to go? Is it up to you? Which world pulls you harder? Your life on earth or what awaits beyond? Mia, seventeen, finds herself in this very situation in If I Stay. As the only survivor of a car accident in which her parents and younger brother are killed, Mia is clinging to life in the hospital. A nurse whispers that it’s up to her to decide.
If I Stay is a Young Adult teen drama that takes a look at the possibility of making powerful decisions at a person’s weakest mortal moment. Something resembling the spirit of the gravely injured Mia watches over as her grandparents, friends, and boyfriend Adam wait and worry. Gayle Forman uses this spirit-like version of Mia to tell the backstory of Mia and her family and of her teen romance with Adam.
I enjoyed reading If I Stay because of this interesting suggestion, of being able to control your destiny. It’s a fast read that focuses on family, friendship and love. Despite the semi-spiritual theme, this is not a deep-thinking book, but I think you have to make a conscious decision, early on, to go with the roll of the book and its plot. The whole story has an exaggerated looseness about it which may irritate some readers.
Mia is a gifted cello player, a senior in high school, hoping to be accepted at Julliard. Dad’s an ex-punk rocker and Mom’s a former punk rock groupie. Adam is a modern punk rocker whose band Shooting Star is about to make it big. Teddy’s the little brother. Music holds this group together and there are many references to songs, bands and the punk rock era. This may seem a little unlikely, but you have to commit to all this if you want to finish the book.
Certain parts of the book strike me as unrealistic, specifically the characterization of Mia’s parents, who are extremely liberal and loose with rules and don’t act at all like parents. They immediately embrace Mia’s romance with Adam, with no reservations and enthusiastically encourage their daughter to jump right in, giving her all kinds of freedom. I wonder how many parents would allow their teen daughter to have sleepovers with her boyfriend or to stay out all night. In addition, the hospital scene is a little wild, with attempts to sneak into the ICU, including using a singer from the fictitious band Bikini as a decoy. Also unlikely is a family friend who happens to be a nurse at a different hospital and is somehow able to take charge of the entire ICU, allowing unauthorized visits, in the name of love.
Smaller details that don’t fit take away from the story. The author makes references to several classic reads, including To Kill a Mockingbird, one of my favorites. This is a book I never would have read or understood as an eleven-year-old, but in this story it marks the beginning of Mia’s friendship with Kim in sixth grade. The two girls argue about whether to focus on racism or people’s goodness for their school project on the book. Mia admits in her narration that she was not a particularly good student so it surprises me that this is the book Forman chooses to use. It seems a little contrived. A later reference to Lord of the Flies also seems forced and unnecessary.
Although it’s not exactly clear when the story takes place, references to cell phones and the internet make it a modern read. So it doesn’t make sense when one of the cousins sits in the waiting area playing on a Gameboy. It’s a good example of how risky it is to use technology references. That handheld game system was popular in the 80s and 90s and is a dinosaur compared to the game apps kids play now!
I did enjoy the book, however, and I think the author raises an interesting question and ties this central theme together with a nice story about teen love. I think the strongest part of the story is near the end, when Mia’s grandparents visit her bedside. With her grandparents and later with Adam, Forman does a nice job imagining how someone who is unconscious may still be able to hear and understand.
So if you’re in the mood for a bit of a tear-jerker, and some good emotional bonding scenes, pick this up before you see the movie. The movie looks pretty good to me!
Have you read If I Stay? What did you think? Have you seen the movie?
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