If I Stay, by Gayle Forman

I was walking around my local library with my daughters a few weeks ago, looking for something quick to read while I waited for another book to be released. There was If I Stay, a book that came out in 2009 and was made into a film—which I didn’t see—in 2014. It didn’t appear to be a particularly lengthy book, and I knew enough about the basic premise of the plot, so I checked it out and started reading.

So what did I know going in? I knew that the main character hangs somewhere between life and death, and the title refers to her decision whether to live or die. I knew that it was billed primarily as a YA romance novel, and for that reason, I expected that a boyfriend would figure in her decision whether or not to stay.

I had the basics right, but there’s much more to the initial incident of this book. Mia, our narrator, has her life hanging in the balance after a car accident on a snow day during her senior year of high school. Also in the car are her parents, who die instantly in the crash, and her younger brother, also rushed to a hospital. Meanwhile, Mia is having an out-of-body experience, where she can see her severely injured body as it is transported to the hospital and then over the next twenty-four hour period while she is being treated.

The device of having a character in a kind of limbo observing their friends and/or family members isn’t a new one. Many years ago, I read a book called If Only It Were True by Frenchman Marc Levy, which was later made into the Reese Witherspoon movie Just Like Heaven. I also reviewed the YA book The Space Between Heartbeats by Melissa Pearl a couple of years ago on this blog. In both of those cases, the comatose character can communicate with one other, but in If I Stay, Mia is on her own.

She’s not exactly a ghost, as she can’t pass through solid matter. But she can see and hear the hospital staff, her grandparents, her best friend Kim, her boyfriend Adam, and some other characters. They each talk to her unconscious body, and some of what they say is advice to aid her in her decision whether or not to stay. It’s during these interactions that the book’s stream-of-consciousness narration leads into flashbacks about Mia’s family, her college plans including an audition to Julliard as a cellist, and her relationship with Adam—how they met, some of their key dates, and their shared love for music, even though she plays mostly classical and he’s a guitarist for an emerging local rock band.

The flashbacks really show the depth of the characters. Mia’s family, Kim, and Adam are all completely believable. Their backstories, lives, relationships, and goals are all believable. As Mia considers her options, the arguments both for and against staying are completely believable within the paranormal confines of the book. And the thematic elements of fate vs. free will, weighing the tough life decisions we have to make that don’t come with an easy correct answer, and the strength of family bonds—both biological family and extended family of friends and significant others—are exceptionally well-handled. Suffice it to say, this is definitely a well-crafted book.

However, it didn’t completely work for me. I enjoy YA fantasy with a message, so I willingly suspended my disbelief to accept Mia’s situation, but I didn’t fully connect with her as a narrator. She’s a believable character, but as a narrator, she was—forgive the pun—lacking some life. This may have been the author’s intent, to have her floating through the situation, but I didn’t feel the urgency of the decision she was facing. Just as the book gives no explanation why Mia is able to view herself and decide her fate, I have no other explanation why I couldn’t connect to her.

But as I said, it’s a well-crafted book that simply didn’t fully do it for me. I was considering giving it 3.5 stars, but one character’s final plea to Mia truly moved me. That part of the ending was satisfying, even though the aftermath of Mia’s decision isn’t explored in this book—I’d have to read the sequel, Where She Went, to learn that. Because I believe those final few pages will stay with me, I’m upping If I Stay to FOUR STARS.

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If I Stay is available at Amazon.

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