Settle in for a heartbreaker.
Once you hear the premise of Gayle Forman’s If I Stay, it doesn’t take long to realize this isn’t exactly going to be a feel-good read . . . but you’d be surprised how ultimately uplifting this tale can be.
Seventeen-year-old Mia is out for a car ride with her parents and little brother Teddy when the horrific happens: on a slick, snowy street, they’re struck by a truck. Her mother and father are killed instantly, Mia comes to realize . . . as she stands outside the vehicle, looking at her own crushed body and those of her loved ones. Everything happens as if in a dream; Mia watches it all unfold, powerless and voiceless.
After she’s transported to a hospital and her grandparents arrive, desperately trying to talk to her as she remains in a coma, our narrator realizes she has a choice: stay in this terrifying new world without her parents, but with her loving boyfriend Adam and extended friends and family, or leave — rejoining her family in whatever exists in the hereafter.
Forman’s small, sharp novel delves deep into what it means to be a family, including those attributes that both divide and unite us. Told over the course of just one day, If I Stay flashes back to Mia’s life in Oregon and shows us clearly the type of brilliant, focused and loving people her parents were. I loved learning about her dad’s rock star past and could definitely feel the fierce protective quality her mom had for those whom she cared about the most. Knowing, as we do, that neither of them survived the crash adds an entirely different dimension to the story . . . and makes the anecdotes all the more powerful. These recollections have shaped Mia into the person she was — and is — today.
My absolute favorite aspect of the story was definitely Mia and Adam’s love — the sweetness that was the beginning of their romance, and the understanding and compassion they had for one another as it deepened. Joined through their love of music, Mia worries before the accident that Adam’s band’s rocketing success will eventually drive them apart — especially considering Mia’s devotion to the cello (not exactly the most punk-rock of instruments). Forman does a remarkable job of capturing the innocence and obsession of first love, my most favorite of topics!
As you’d expect, themes of death and grief are certainly prevalent — and a few graphic passages didn’t sit well with me. I was definitely rooting for Mia and hoping she’d make the right call, but I don’t know what in the world I would do in her situation — and pray I never have to even go there. I guess that’s why the novel left me with a crater-wide pit in my stomach . . . the realism of the story was scary. Because this trauma? It could happen to anyone. And like the dystopian fiction I’ve been so fond of lately, this story could be our story. Any of us.
But overall, a deeply moving but understated novel that does more with less — and chooses to focus on the humanity of the characters — and all of us.
4 out of 5!