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Gayle Forman – If I Stay

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When there are people in different corners of existence, and both sets are people you love, who do you choose to go to?

Publisher: Doubleday (Random House)
Pages: 210
ISBN: 978-0-385-61621-8
First Published: 2009
Date Reviewed: 12th August 2010
Rating: 3.5/5

If I Stay has been given a very warm reception by bookstores and online media. It has been hailed as the forerunner to other tales and indeed Lauren Oliver’s (later) release, Before I Fall, was compared to it.

Mia’s family car crashes while they are all in it. She (Mia) locates her parents but where she thinks she’s found her brother she’s actually found herself. Her spirit has left her body – but she’s not dead yet. Throughout her time in the Intensive Care Unit, Mia continues her out of body experience, looking back on her life, at the extended family, friends, and boyfriend who visit her, and wonders what’s next. What can she do? What should she do? Both are questions she must answer for herself.

Maybe it was all the hype, or maybe the fact that I’d already read Before I Fall, but I didn’t find If I Stay to be as compelling as I’d hoped. Forman tells a good story, Mia’s unpredictable state over the course of the day, but although there were flashbacks I never felt enough for the characters. And this is important for a book dealing with such a subject. If it had been longer there would’ve been more to grasp hold of as Mia didn’t have enough time within the 210 pages to develop herself. I wasn’t convinced of Mia’s relationship with Adam. This wasn’t the fault of the relationship itself but rather in the way Mia saw it. We get a good glimpse of the strength of Adam’s feelings but they needed to be written stronger rather than eluded to. It was Mia’s love that was the problematic part.

Adam is a hero, but often Mia doesn’t understand his motives. The reader does, however, and this is frustrating because everything points to the obvious choice of life. Personally I was confused as to how she could choose anything else because the reasons were staring her in the face. In that way she sometimes seemed selfish, even if she actually wasn’t. Perhaps some space for Adam’s point of view here would have remedied that and I am very happy to have heard that a sequel is being written as If I Stay may not be perfect but it’s good enough for you to want to stick around.

Music is everything in this story. It’s the reason for Mia’s parent’s relationship, the reason they have their good family friends, and it’s the reason Mia became close to Adam. Most of the time Mia’s thinking reverts to her cellist training and she is constantly, though unknowingly, reminding herself that music is the reason to stay. Because of her family’s dependence on music one believes that Mia’s parents would, in the situation she is in now, tell her to put it before all else. I’m not sure if I am correct in this because I am a musician myself, but I would guess that people not familiar with the art would be able to understand most of the terms.

Mia and Adam’s shared devotion provides the meaning for a rather original intimate scene. In a way it’s quite strange and certainly a lot more graphic than most accounts of intercourse in fiction; and yet the sex is not introduced at that point. Forman favours this over any detailed tale of Mia’s loss of virginity, which she simply mentions instead of describing. The whole concept of the scene and Forman’s later reluctance are cause for a lot more thought than had she just had the characters ripping each others’ clothes off. Forman is subtly reminding us that sex doesn’t just have to be sex, doesn’t just have to be what everyone thinks. We can interpret it in our own way and make it specifically relevant to ourselves. And surely that makes for a more satisfactory and spiritual experience.

Forman’s writing is simple but it makes the book an easy read. Forman can be humorous and, considering the upsetting topic at hand, chooses her timing wisely. There is a fabulous scene involving birth that is worthy of many laughs out loud.

I often like to mention in a review what the reader can take away from the book, to cherish long after they’ve finished. Regarding If I Stay this is surely the central point of who you would choose. Forman isn’t suggesting you think of death per se, the idea can be applied to everyday situations; and to apply it to everyday situations doesn’t mean you have to take it literally and consider whether your parents are as important as your romantic interest, rather that you consider your feelings for everyone more than you usually would. Mia’s experience is the suggestion that you should.

If I Stay may be short but it does what it sets out to do within the limits of it’s page count. There are many books that will teach you the same things but if you’re looking for something that will still reach out to you in a small amount of time then this may be it.

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September 15, 2010, 12:04 am

Great review! I’m looking forward to the sequel lots…I’ll be curious if, having moved past the huge tension of the central dilemma, Forman can keep the energy of the story going…

Charlie: Interesting thought, Charlotte! From the little I’ve read about it, I’m assuming there will be tension in the way the breakup was handled or in the getting back together (because that’s got to happen, right?) so the element will be there, it’ll just be different.

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