Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Shall I Stay or Shall I Go?

If I Stay by Gayle Forman
5Q 4P; Audience: J/S

It's no secret that a lot of teens fight with their parents on a regular basis and are waiting impatiently to graduate high school and go to college, preferably someplace away. Mia is not one of those teens. Her family is close. They don't just love each other, they like each other and enjoy spending time together. So when there's a rare snow day in their little part of Oregon, Mia's parents decide it's a perfect day for a family car trip and Mia and her little brother Teddy enthusiastically agree. The snow's not the kind that amounts to anything, so they figure it's perfectly safe. It's not. The four of them are happily talking and listening to music when a four-ton pickup truck going sixty miles per hour plows into them so hard the force of it tears off the doors and pushes the passenger seat clear through the driver's side window.

You don't walk away from an accident like that. Except...Mia does. When the sounds of the crash stop echoing, she can still hear Beethoven's Cello Sonata no. 3 playing. She walks up the embankment and sees the devastation: the crumpled car, the pipe in her father's pocket and his brains scattered on the pavement, her mother's blue lips and red eyes that make her look more like a zombie than someone who was laughing and breathing and living just two minutes ago. But where is Teddy? She frantically searches for a sign of him. There! His hand, sticking out a ditch! But when she gets closer, she realizes the hand sticking out of the ditch isn't Teddy's. It's wearing her bracelet, and the body is wearing her clothing. The body isn't Teddy's. It's hers. No, you don't walk away from an accident like that.

Mia doesn't understand what's going on, why she and her body seem to be two separate things. What she does understand is that her parents are dead and her brother is badly injured. She understands that she can walk, invisible, among her doctors, her friends, and her relatives. She can hear their conversations, but she can't communicate with them. She can only watch them as they sit in the waiting room or by her bedside, grieving and loving. It is a nurse's comment that eventually gives her a clue. If she's "running the show", does that mean that if she lives or dies is up to her? If so, should she stay or should she go? How you make a decision like that?

The love in this book is almost palpable. Reading Mia's flashbacks of times spent with her family made me wish I could be a part of their circle. Teddy is adorable, and Mia's parents, both music-loving former hippies, are wise, loving, and totally cool. Two weeks after finishing the book, Mia's father still feels real to me. I melted a little when Mia described his transition from hippie to middle school teacher, and I'm getting a warm feeling from just remembering how he and her mother talked Mia through her first-recital fears. These were good people. Mia's boyfriend Adam is just as likable. He's a rocker and she's a classical cellist. Despite that seemingly wide difference in sensibilities, music both brings and binds them together. The expression "She played me like a cello" has a whole new (and fairly erotic) meaning for me now. Mia is not a romantic. Even as she describes their tender moments and first kisses, she doesn't try to pretend that the relationship didn't have less rosy moments or that she wasn't always secure in it. There's a maturity to their relationship and the way she understands it that resonates.

Music is a constant thread throughout the book. Whether it's rock or classical, music is the common language, and it doesn't matter that they aren't speaking the same dialect. Music is love, and love is music. The book is music is love.

If I Stay is heartbreaking and poignant, life-affirming, and powerful in its simplicity and depth. I can't wait to share it with other readers.


  1. I agree with everything you wrote about If I Stay. It is a remarkable book. The medical stuff was very well done. I like what you wrote about the love being palpable. As the tone deaf mother of musicians, I loved the musical subplot, especially as it tied into the ending.

    I read it on Sunday and gave it to an eighth grade girl on Wednesday (I kept leaving it home! I guess I don't want to donate it to my library ;-) I can't wait to hear her reaction. I gave it to her when she returned Wintergirls.

    The only little detail that niggled at me was the fact that Mia was assigned to read To Kill a Mockingbird in sixth grade. That's a rather sophisticated assignment and happens to be an eighth grade read at the two schools in which I have worked. Minor flaw.

  2. You know, I had that same reaction about them reading To Kill a Mockingbird in sixth grade. It's the one thing in the book that didn't ring true to me. But other than that, Forman knocked it out of the park.


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