Well, after my adventures with Augie March, I was looking for something a little easier to digest. That’s how I came to If I Stay, a young adult novel by Gayle Forman published in 2009. But I’d forgotten something about YA literature: even though they tend to be easier to read in terms of language and style, they also tend to tackle some really heavy topics. This one centers around a car crash, and a girl’s decision about whether to stay in the land of the living or “move on” with her deceased family. So, yeah. Not a lot of laughs to be had here!
The story opens on a Norman Rockwell painting: a happy family of four, living in Anywhere USA, deciding one snowy day to go for a drive together. Then, there’s an immediate and violent tragedy: another car crashes into theirs. The two parents are killed immediately, and the kids are both unconscious, with severe injuries.
Mia – our 17-year-old protagonist – is not having a very good day.
She falls into a whacky out-of-body experience, standing over her lifeless skin suit and trying to figure out what the heck is going on. She follows herself, and her younger brother, in the ambulance back to the hospital. Her extended family rushes to be with them, and she starts to wonder why her boyfriend isn’t with them. Then, the flashbacks start, and her pre-coma life unfolds.
She grew up being the only classical music-lover in a house full of rock’n’rollers. Literally, her parents were punk before it was cool, and her little brother played the drums (or something, he wasn’t that memorable, to be honest). Mia also has a boyfriend, Adam, who is handsome and musically talented (duh), and – of course – he’s in a baaaaand. I swear, authors who write rock stars as romantic leads have never actually dated a musician in real life. They generally don’t make for stable and committed lovers. But Adam “loves” Mia, even though she’s “weird”, which makes the whole love story read like a tragic episode of wish-fulfillment. I mean, a quiet, plain girl with a rock-star boyfriend who loves her, even though they have nothing in common, and persists through her tantrums and shyness because he sees who she “really” is? Ugh.
Anyway, Mia spends a lot of time thinking about her boyfriend – fair enough, she is a teenager – and whether she should stick around in the mortal realm to be with him. By this point, her younger brother has succumbed to his injuries, so choosing Adam would also mean choosing a life of grief and poor-orphan-girl sympathy. Her grandparents are still alive, though, so she wouldn’t be entirely alone. Choices, choices…
If I were writing a high school book report, I would say that If I Stay is a book about choices. Live or die, stay or go, et cetera. Forman actually did a pretty good job of weaving in a series of smaller choices as well, in Mia’s flashbacks and reminisces, foreshadowing this big final call she has to make. Mia calls upon all these choices she’d made throughout her short life, and pretty much makes up her mind to shuffle off the mortal coil… but then, her boyfriend shows up, and has a normal human reaction to seeing one’s comatose girlfriend (i.e., he gets a bit upset), and she’s so moved by this “outpouring” of “true love” that she decides to stick around after all. Wonderful!
Some of the philosophising and musing on life and death was a bit trite, but in fairness I’m closer to thirty than twenty; I’ve had plenty of time to think a lot of this stuff through already. If I’d read this book as a 13- or 14-year-old, maybe it wouldn’t have seemed so cringey. It really started to drag a bit, especially towards the end, which is saying a lot because the timeline of the book only ran to a day.
(Oh, and there’s quite a bit of ableist language, too, which really surprised me. YA books tend to be pretty woke, so it was especially jarring, as I wasn’t expecting it. Steer clear if that stuff bothers you!)
Even though it was a bit much for cynical snots like me, If I Stay was well received, and sold gangbusters. Summit Entertainment bought the film rights straight away, but they chewed through a few different directors and lead actresses before they finally got it out. The film adaptation was released in 2014, starring Chloe Grace Mortez, and pulled in $78 million at the box office. Not bad.
And, not one to let go of a good thing, Forman also wrote a follow-up called Where She Went. It was published in April 2011, and it picks up the story a few years after Mia’s accident. She and Adam have broken up (good thing she “chose life” for this guy, eh?), and she’s moved to New York to attend Julliard School of Music. Side note: why is it always Julliard? Are there no other performance schools in the U.S.? Why don’t any of them ever come to NIDA?
Anyway, If I Stay wasn’t terrible, and it wasn’t great, but it was an adequate literary palette cleanser. I can’t picture a situation where I’d be pressing this book into somebody’s hands and insisting they read it, but I wouldn’t begrudge anyone their enjoyment of it either. So, take it or leave it.
My favourite Amazon reviews of If I Stay:
- “gave as a gift. was loved.” – Kate doyle
- “Somewhat interesting book” – erika
- “Aside from the bad language, plot was boring, unrealistic and the ending was lame.
SPOILER: She’s watching her body in ICU but can’t walk through walls? Her boyfriend isn’t allowed to see her in ICU? Uh, no.” – Zarabbeth
- “Wow. I love that the story is not linear. It bounced around. I would recommend it to anyone who is willing to read about death.” – Victoria M.
- “The book was so boring and it just lacked interestingness.” – Madie Sue
- “This book has language, alcohol use, and possible nudity. Overall rating R. This book is inappropriate for young girls named Teresa. She is in seventh grade. She does not need to know about boys that are older than her wearing skinny jeans. Boys go in a very hard stage in their life, advancing for boys to men. This is
called puberty and girls named Teresa don’t need to know about boys wearing skinny jeans going through this stage.
Terrible.” – Amazon Customer