If I Stay by Gayle Forman

Make sure you’ve got tissues. This was a half-pack novel for me, and I don’t normally tear up for tear-jerker novels.

The novel begins, with a few signifying foreshadowing asides from Our Protagonist the Narrator, with a snow day. As the family has two school-aged children and one school teacher parent, it’s an easy decision for the other parent to call in “sick” for a day off together. After finishing their wholesome family breakfast of coffee, orange juice and other typical breakfast foods, the family sets off together to visit a family of family friends, intending on the way back to visit their favorite used book store, and stop by the local pair of grandparents.

This is not to be. (surprise, surprise)

A few minutes into the family drive, all their hopes and expectations come to (literally) a crashing halt, with the collision with a pickup truck coming in the opposite direction. The parents are killed on the scene, but the children survive and are airlifted to the nearest hospital with a trauma center. The younger brother does later die, but Mia remains, tied to her body though separate from it, alternating between observing the activities around her and reviewing her life. Her friends and grandparents take turns remaining by her bedside while Mia lies in a coma, talking to her while Mia’s spirit decides whether she wants to re-enter her body or go on to wherever her parents and brother have gone.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this novel reminded me of The Lovely Bones; both are narrated by a girl who’s not physically present, and both involve the reaction of family and friends to the untimely death. There are a few differences, mind, not least the fact that in If I Stay, we do not find out the nature of heaven; all the protagonist knows is that her parents are not there with her. In The Lovely Bones, there’s a certain skeevy criminal aspect, while in If I Stay, the protagonist’s cause of death is a genuine accident, the sort of thing that remains to haunt the person who caused the accident.

Music plays a significant role in the book. Mia is a gifted cello player, and has been accepted into Julliard. Her boyfriend, Adam, is the guitarist for a punk-rock band which is beginning to take off, and has been touring more and more. Her father was himself a similar musician to Adam before deciding to “grow up” enough to switch to teaching in the local public school system. Before the accident, Mia was struggling to decide if she wanted to stay with Adam, whose budding career required him to stay in the Pacific Northwest, or go to Julliard, which would entail moving across the country, from outside Portland to New York. After the accident, as the book unfolds, Mia has what is obviously a much harder decision: to return to her body or go on to wherever her parents and brother have gone.

There are a few hiccups and drawbacks. The dialogue is on occasion a bit stilted; in one of the novel’s opening scenes, the breakfast table repartee is the sort of sparkling delight that only happens in daydreams; how many parents/older siblings say in reference to a nine-year-old child1:

“You have far too much energy for this early in the morning,”2 I tease. I turn to Mom. “Maybe you shouldn’t let Teddy drink so much coffee.”
“I’ve switched him to decaf.” Mom volleys back. “He’s just naturally exuberant.”
“Just as long as you’re not switching me to decaf,” I say.
“That would be child abuse,” Dad says.

Overall, it’s a smooth read, though sardonic readers might think it a bit close to glurge for their tastes. I’ll be looking for the sequel, however!

1well, some families may, but if they need all that much coffee in the morning to wake up, they’re not going to be that witty before drinking it, trust me.
2as a side note, clearly this book has an attentive editor. Lovely punctuation this.


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