Review: If I Stay

by Gayle Forman
Young Adult, 208 pages.
Dutton Juvenile (2009)
ISBN: 978-0525421030

Mia, a senior in high school, sees her entire life flashing before her eyes like an old cartoon cliche. Only for her, it’s very much real. Mia and her family get involved in a horrific car accident in the opening pages of Gayle Forman’s engrossing YA, IF I STAY. Her parents are killed instantly and her brother is whisked away. While Mia’s body fights for breath in the ICU, Mia’s spirit spends the rest of the book remembering her life and grappling with the most important choice she’s ever had to make: will she stay or will she slip away?

An agent friend recently got back from New York to tell me that all the editors were going crazy for this book. Without delay, I picked up my copy and couldn’t be more thrilled with it. IF I STAY isn’t just another teen grief novel, not by a long shot. It’s the story of Mia’s life and the people in it. Most of all, it is not a story about death… it’s a story about choice.

If everyone in your family died, would you join them? If your future suddenly turned out harder than you ever imagined, would you choose the easier road and die? Mia’s decision opens up a rich landscape of memory for the reader to explore. We meet her parents, who are, hands down, some of the coolest parental units in YA fiction. We meet Adam, who is the punk guitar to her classical cello. We meet Julliard, the dream that Mia’s worked so hard for, the one that hangs in the balance now. We meet Kim, Mia’s best friend, who finally kneels down and prays.

Through it all, we see family and friends rallying around the hospital while Mia, drifting disembodied, has to decide whether to live or die. Her decision is up in the air until the last few pages but the reader will be completely gratified when she makes her choice. They’ll rejoice, too, to feel the resounding pulse of life and love throughout this imaginative, beautifully written book.

Because that’s what IF I STAY is all about. Mia has a great life that’s full to the brim with love. There is no terrible angst, no unfair circumstance. Not until the moment of the accident. And even then, when everything from her old life falls apart, Mia uses the lessons and values she’s learned from her loved ones to keep her strong.

You can order IF I STAY or pick it up at your favorite indie store. But do read it… this is a book many, many people will be talking about for months to come.

For Readers: Mia is a strong, endearing character thrust into a nightmare situation. She has to reconcile her love for her boyfriend and extended family with her extreme grief and survivor’s guilt. Forman has orchestrated all of these feelings in a profound, beautiful and honest way. For fans of literary fiction as well as readers who enjoy tales of love and family, this is a highly, highly recommended must read.

For Writers: Do not pass go, do not write another family scene and do not collect $200 until you check out IF I STAY. The mom and dad in this book have to be some of the warmest, most genuine fictional parents I’ve ever read. Also, writers everywhere could take a few notes on Forman’s use of memory. The plot is rather simple: girl is in car accident, girl lands in hospital. The bulk of the book is made up of memories intercut with the hospital narration. Read this novel to see how one memory flows into another and which moments and scenes the author picks to tell her story and to flesh out her characters.

Watch how the emotional landscape changes as these memories blossom and transform themselves into an entire, vibrant lifetime. You may not write a book composed mostly of memories, like this one, but you should always remember that your main character’s inner life is run through with their past and future, just like Mia’s is as she ponders it all. Check out Gayle Forman’s website and watch the IF I STAY book trailer. It is very cool and understated.

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  1. Lisa Schroeder’s avatar

    Great review, and I agree, the moments and scenes that are the flashbacks are what make the book so rich and the characters so real.

  2. Mary’s avatar

    Thanks so much for the kind words Lisa. I really thought this book was a remarkable use of flashbacks and memory.

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