Life, in my humble opinion, does come down to choices. And that is one of the main underlying themes of Gayle Forman’s If I Stay and Where She Went duology, though both deal with very different kinds of choices.
The more often I write reviews, the more I realise how much I don’t really like writing traditional ones (not that there is anything wrong with them, just a personal preference). So I’m going to try to see how I can coherently type all the thoughts and feelings that have been swirling around in my mind since I finished these two books.
Mia Hall is a 17 year old girl. Apart from being a cellist with near-prodigious talent, she is your average, kind of shy teenage girl who doesn’t fully fit in with her peers nor is an overtly social outcast. In Kat and Denny, she has two uber-cool, understanding parents (more on them later), and she’s like a second mother to 7 year old brother, Teddy, whom she has helped raise. To add to this pretty much perfect mix is her Jewish best friend, Kim, and sensitive but edgy musician boyfriend, Adam, who is the lead singer and guitarist for an up and coming Portland punk rock band called Shooting Star.
If I Stay deals with the aftermath of a terrible accident that kills her family and puts Mia in a coma (this is in the blurb so not really a spoiler). Mia finds herself in this weird invisible limbo where the decision of whether to stay or die is up to her. Since I’ve already said that this is a duology, it should be a given that she does in fact decide to wake up. This book is about how she weighs up both choices and comes to the conclusion that she should live. During this process, she looks back on certain cherished memories about her family, about Adam, about Kim, even as she wanders about the hospital and keeps an eye on herself in the ICU and on the extended family that have gathered in the waiting room—while Where She Went is about the consequences of Mia’s choice, about the aftermath of such debilitating loss and grief, and where their lives take them 3 years on. (There is also a cinematic adaptation of If I Stay that came out in 2014)
Reasons to read them:
- A non-annoying female protagonist.
- Interesting and engaging supporting characters.
- Adam’s POV in the second book made him a more three-dimensional character, despite how whiny, angry and self-destructive he was for most of it.
- A pretty realistic depiction of young love and its joys and pitfalls.
- In the second book, it is refreshing to see how we can relate to and understand Adam and Mia’s perspectives, and how both have the right to feel the way they do about a very complex situation. It shows that sometimes, in a relationship, neither partner is at fault, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t at odds. The revelation for Adam about why Mia left is pitch-perfect in its mature handling and searing in its intensity.
- Brings up thought-provoking questions about choices, responsibility, consequences, the nature of love, sacrifice, music, grief and loss. Even if you don’t quite agree with what they say or do, they will make you think.
- Songs, musicians, lyrics (classical, rock, punk and more) are heavily referenced, but never in a way that tries too hard.
- There are some very elegant descriptions and turns of phrase (more in the first than in the second book).
- The friendship that springs up between Kim and Adam as they face the very real possibility of losing Mia in If I Stay.
- My favourite scene is from one of her memories where Mia’s family are having a summer cookout and they make her realise that her cello doesn’t have to be a solo instrument.
- I didn’t expect the first book to also have a lot of humour, but it surprisingly does.
- If I Stay (my favourite of the two) is a very quiet narrative despite the topic at its core, and to its credit never forces or manipulates us to feel certain emotions or cry. I had half braced myself for melodrama, but thankfully there was almost none.
Reasons why I wouldn’t want to re-read them (particularly the second) and what I wish was different:
- Mia isn’t an uninteresting narrator, but she is a bit spaced out in her limbo state, something that was intentional on the part of the writer to show how she couldn’t really “feel” even if she wanted to (which makes for an interesting conundrum by itself—how are you supposed to make the most difficult decision of your life if you can’t experience emotion?). The detached quality didn’t bother me, but the restricted point of view did. We are stuck with Mia and get glimpses of the people in her life only through her eyes and from her recollections, in respect to where and how they stand in relation to her. While this doesn’t make any of them any less likeable, it does mean that they lose quite an amount of depth and dimension. And with the case of her parents and Teddy (his death hurts the most…ugh), there is the added pitfall of rose-tinted glasses (a natural tendency given that Mia is assessing everything that she has lost and wondering whether life is still worth living) and they come off looking a bit too-good-to-be-true. I would have liked more of an insight into their flaws and quirks to make them more rounded.
- Teddy, as adorable as he is, speaks a bit too maturely for his young years.
- There are some awkward and super cheesy scenes including one where Adam tells Mia to “play him like a cello” and she does, after which he repays the favour, replacing the cello with the guitar. I appreciate the musical metaphor for the act of love, but just…no.
- It is unrealistic that all three of them (Mia, Adam and Kim) become super successful in their respective careers by the age of 21.
- The flashbacks format which worked so well in If I Stay interrupts the main story in Where She Went. Every other chapter is a flashback (yes, an entire chapter) and though I understand the purpose is to fill us in about the happenings of the 3 years that have passed since the end of the first book, it is difficult to get into any sort of rhythm—mentally, emotionally or narratively—when the present-day action is so constantly interrupted.
I’ve purposely left my feelings about the endings of both books for the…well very end of this piece.
Even though If I Stay ends on kind of a cliffhanger, I thought it was a really good way to honour the rest of the story and its characters. Did I want more time with them? Of course, I did. But does that mean the story required more? Not really. That monologue at the end by Adam is beautifully poetic and I would have been happy if that had been that.
What I would have wanted more of goes slightly before the end. Mia’s eventual decision happens too quickly for me, especially since she doesn’t really seem all that sure about either choice even as she listens to Adam talk to her comatose self. Or maybe that’s what Forman was trying to show…how such a resolution ultimately comes down to a gut instinct that happens in a split second.
Where She Went on the other hand was ultimately far more disappointing. After an epiphany of such intensity that Adam experiences on Brooklyn Bridge, the after-effects and emotional turmoil will be far-reaching and long-lasting. So the near-immediate reconciliation with Mia happens too fast, undoing (according to me) the progress he’s just beginning to make as he digests and comes to terms with everything he’s been avoiding and running from. I’d have preferred an ending similar to its predecessor which only hints at possibilities and a hopeful sort of future—maybe just after they’ve played their duet at her apartment. It seems more like wish fulfillment than genuine character development that sells both Adam and Mia short.
Would I recommend this duology? If you like YA fiction and want something that isn’t completely run-of-the-mill, give it a try and you might enjoy it as well. Gayle Forman’s Just One Day/Year/Night trilogy which I read last year is also worth a read, despite its flaws. But for both series, I’d warn you to steer clear of all the hype surrounding them. Personally, I’ve found that such hype rarely enhances my enjoyment of the same and more often than not puts me off with the expectation.