Thursday, October 2, 2014

If I Stay

by Gayle Forman
(April 2nd 2009, Dutton Juvenile)

Book Description:

After a car crash kills her parents and critically injures her and her young brother, seventeen-year-old cellist Mia wanders around the hospital where she’s being treated in an out-of-body experience. On the edge of death and recalling memories of her family, her best friend Kim, and her boyfriend Adam, Mia realizes that she controls her own fate. Will she stop fighting, let go, and join her parents, or will she stay and live her life but suffer the pain of losing them?


After seeing so many glowing reviews of If I Stay, I expected a book that – if I didn’t like it (probable, as I’m not a fan of romance) – would at least be one I could appreciate as being well done. I can’t honestly say either of these things, but there were a couple things that I certainly did appreciate. 

First and foremost is the connectedness that Mia feels with her family. This is certainly something of a rare commodity in young adult literature these days. Her love of her parents and her kid brother Teddy was heartwarming, even if it often failed to be effective. Second is that, while I found the writing in general a problem, it flowed quite well and was very evocative (to the book’s detriment at times, in fact). I similarly loved the character of Teddy. He brought a much-needed lightness to book, though he was unfortunately underused. 

Finally, Forman has obviously also exhaustively researched hospitals and music, and used the jargon of both to good effect.


I found If I Stay’s premise to be almost intrinsically melodramatic. At times, it feels like a saccharine, teenage soap opera that attempts to be both edgy and hopeful at the same. To me at least, it failed at both. Gayle Forman’s writing, though evocative and flowing, is all too often overwrought and ridiculous (“a symphony of grinding, a chorus of popping, an aria of exploding, and finally, the sad clapping of hard metal cutting into soft trees”). The prose also lacks any genuine youth. Mia, who narrates her story, doesn’t sound like any seventeen year old I have ever met. She often speaks of “throwing down gauntlet[s]”, “quid pro quo”, and, most unbelievably, “official d├ętente[s]”. It’s possible, I suppose, that a teenager could sound this way, but Mia herself often says that she’s not a remarkably good student, and there’s certainly no evidence to the contrary. This disconnectedness further undermines the story’s already strained premise. 

Efforts to address themes of strength, belief in one’s self, and, most importantly, hope did not at all connect with me because the events with which they’re explored are shallow and bland. And in spite of the author’s attempts to be subtle, it always feels as though she’s trying to pull on heartstrings (in one case specifically). I found this irritating to the extreme.  
The relationships in Mia’s life take center stage here. In general, these connections never rise beyond usual young adult fare: shallow and flat. This is especially true of Mia’s intense first-love bond with Adam. Their love feels unearned and unjustified. You never quite understand why they love each other so much. It could be argued that this is realistic when taking into account their ages, but the relationship is set up to be much more serious. In the end, it felt both sappy and insubstantial. Characterization was an issue as well. Most of the cast alternates between being unlikeable and pretentious – in exactly the same way. Ultimately, they end up feeling almost like the same person. And the author’s constant attempts to toughen up the book’s feel-good tone with things like intermittent cursing, punk rockers, “feminist bitches” etc. are transparent, ineffective, and unintentionally amusing.
The plot is beset with a lack of structure. Sections alternate between Mia watching her relatives and friends’ vigil in hospital, and memories of her parents and friends. These vignettes are mostly uninteresting and exasperate the novel’s lack of cohesion. More than anything else, readers never have much idea where the story is going or even attempting to go.   

If I Stay may mean well but its jarring sweet-but-tough tone, lack of cohesion, pretension, and general shallowness will only succeed with fans of the genre and readers firmly within its target demographic 

Rating: (3/10)

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