Monday, June 30, 2014

'If I Stay': Tragedy, Love, Music, And The Most Difficult Of Choices

I enjoy reading recommended or acclaimed young adult novels. I’m twenty-five years old and actually closer to twenty-six and though my apartment’s bookshelf contains things like The Great Gatsby, a book of Emily Dickinson’s poetry, and The Kite Runner, it also contains things like The Fault in Our Stars, The Hunger Games, and Harry Potter. I’m aboard the theory that J.K. Rowling changed a lot within culture and specifically reading culture when the Harry Potter franchise became a monumental success. Suddenly, everyone seemed to be reading the series – grandparents, parents, children, college and high school students, etc. That one series began to subtly change the landscape of young adult literature to the point where now, in 2014, the genre is beginning to garner more interest and respect from those both in and outside of high school. One of my most recent ventures into young adult literature came in the form of If I Stay, a novel by Gayle Forman. It had been on my must-read list for quite some time and my roommate and I performed a book swap – her copy for my copy of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – so that I could borrow and read it. The premise piqued my interest and I was not disappointed when I concluded the book.

Below the cut, I’ll be discussing what made this young adult novel transcend the genre and why I feel that Gayle Forman turned what could have been a clich├ęd mess into something beautiful and poignant. *Spoilers abound so don’t read if you haven’t yet read the book and plan on it (or read on if you really just love being spoiled for things)!*

If I Stay is the story of a young woman named Mia, who is a classical music enthusiast and brilliant cello player. She feels intimately connected to both music and her instrument and that may or may not be because she’s grown up in a musical family. Her father was a musician who settled down later in life and her mom – a self-professed feminist – worships women in rock. Mia feels like an outcast in her own family, however, because of her passion for classical music. She doesn’t feel as connected to her own flesh and blood because of this and it’s something she struggles with in flashbacks throughout the course of the novel. What is it like to feel both at home and also weirdly not when you’re a teenager?

And then Adam enters Mia’s life and literally everything changes. They clash, of course, because he’s in a rock band and she enjoys symphonies but they understand each other. I think it’s important that If I Stay doesn’t focus so much on what makes Adam and Mia different as it does highlight what makes them similar. Music is such a beautiful motif throughout the novel – it seemingly divides the characters, as Kim and Mia would say, into two categories: those who like pop and those who like classical. That’s often how we feel, is it not? We clash with friends and family members over our musical tastes and what to play on the car radio during a road trip. But in the end, it is love and music that SAVES Mia. How beautiful is that? It is the overwhelming feeling that a classical piece feels as it courses through her veins; it dredges up memories and also somehow gives us a glimpse into the future, of what is yet to come. 

Music literally transcends everything: generations, genders, social classes, language barriers, and so it was refreshing to know that while Mia was the protagonist of this story, music was ALWAYS a character. The presence throughout the story was a powerful one, as it united family and friends (the beautiful scene of Mia playing with her dad, boyfriend, and father’s friends during their Labor Day cookout) and also divided her and Adam during certain parts of their relationship. I appreciate the care and deliberateness with which Gayle Forman selected the songs she utilized during the novel. Each was a poignant representation and reflection of both characters and circumstances and I loved it. I think that was what really separated this book from other young adult novels and why its significance allowed If I Stay to transcend the genre. Though most of us (blessedly) will probably never encounter the horrific tragedy that Mia does within the novel, we all know what it feels like to be touched by music. Moreover, we know the emotional resonance of music and its significant impact in our lives. We can FEEL it – we can feel the guitars or strings and the crescendos and the diminuendos. We feel the emotion within the piece and it stirs us to action or to stillness. What makes If I Stay so unique is that music is utilized to remind us of how similar we all are. Never mind the fact that Mia is a teenager in this novel; we can close our eyes and hear and feel and see what she does. Those feelings throughout the novel – of isolation and separation, of longing and love and peace and heartache – are universal and that means that the novel’s message is, too, not isolated to high school but transcendent.

Another transcendent topic covered in If I Stay is that of death and loss. This book is heart-wrenching: Mia and her family go for a drive in the morning in snowy Oregon and get into a terrible car accident. When Mia “awakens,” she finds herself to be completely detached from her body – a spirit, if you will, but one that cannot pass through walls like a ghost. Physically, Mia is in a coma, but she’s hanging in the balance between life and death. Her father and mother die at the scene of the accident, while her little brother passes away a few hours later at a hospital. If I Stay focuses on Mia’s decision to stay on earth, orphaned, or to go with her family into the afterlife. It’s such an intriguing concept for a novel and one that is surrounded by just as much confusion and pain as is customary for a book about loss. But much like John Green’s cancer book The Fault in Our Stars isn’t about cancer, Gayle Forman’s book is not about dying. Not really. It’s a story of family and life and friendships and it’s a story about how we will always have difficult decisions to make. And for a while, Mia waffles as to whether or not she wants to remain on earth, knowing the pain and suffering she will have to endure day after day with her parents and brother gone. It seems, as the book approaches its conclusion, that her mind is made up: she will go with them. She cannot be alive without them. But then, something utterly mesmerizing happens: Adam places headphones over Mia’s comatose ears in the hospital and music begins to flow through them and into her body. In that moment, she sees what her life was like and glimpses of what it will be like. And for the first time, she registers the terrible and excruciating pain that she will have to endure if she stays. But she feels Adam’s hand on hers and also feels all she has left in life. And all that she has lost is included in that feeling.

You see, If I Stay reminds us and Mia that choices are not easy – you don’t often get to have one easy decision; if she stays on earth, she WILL feel that pain but she will also feel the joy of living. If she goes, she will leave behind people and their pain will continue to exist long after she ceases to. The novel doesn’t present Mia’s choice as an easy one, and it isn’t. Choosing whether or not to wake up was never the main point of the book, though. Mia presumed that choosing life meant choosing pain and choosing death meant choosing peace. But that is simply not the case. Choices aren’t that black and white and the novel reminds us that every choice we make has consequences, even the ones that seem easiest. What I admired so much about Forman’s work on this novel though was the flawless incorporation of what I’d like to call “trigger flashbacks.” The present-day portion of the novel takes place in the span of about twenty-four hours but out-of-body Mia experiences sights, sounds, and people that trigger flashbacks. The flashbacks are so well-executed in this novel because they feel TRUE. A sight or a sound can trigger a memory, which can cause us to delve into a pool of nostalgia. This is easy for all of us, but especially Mia, who is in a near-death-like state in which she is focusing on her life through a lens of memories. 

But If I Stay is not just a story about death or tragedy – it’s a story about love and how Adam’s love for Mia is what saves her in the end. It’s his love for her that propels him to race to find music, knowing that music will speak more volumes to her than he ever could. He tells her that he loves her so much that he will distance himself on earth from her if that is what it takes; he just doesn’t want her to leave earth. He can’t bear it. Kim’s love for her friend and the rest of Mia’s family – her aunts and uncles, parents’ best friends, grandparents, and total strangers – coupled with Adam’s love are what bring Mia back. They are why she stays. She doesn’t stay because life will be painless or easy. She doesn’t make a decision based on her emotions, necessarily. She makes the conscious decision to live because there is still beauty left to behold in the world. There is still music and love and friendship. There are still good things and her parents and Teddy would want the world for her – all of the good, even with the bad. There’s a quote from Doctor Who that says: “The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things or make them unimportant.” That is what Mia realizes in those moments: she needs to live, because there is still LIFE in front of her.

I really enjoyed this young adult novel, to be frank, even though I’m not a young adult. I think that it’s so refreshing that young adult novels are on the upswing: adults seem to be growing increasingly interested in them and I credit a lot of that to J.K. Rowling but also the relentless pursuit of story and character that authors like John Green and Gayle Forman exhibit. Young adult novels aren’t widely accepted as literature still. There are people who mock and scoff at them, preferring to read more “high-brow” literature instead. But I don’t see why young adult literature cannot be accepted into canon. I don’t see why people need to turn down their noses at it. Sure, not every story (whether young adult or not) will deeply resonate with individuals of all ages, genders, and social classes. But when a book like If I Stay is released – a book that focuses on the universal subjects of love and death and painful choices – I think it should be considered. I think that people should read whatever they want and not be ashamed. I think that we should encourage and invite our friends to read and read diversely. Read young adult literature. Read romances. Read dystopian novels. Read literary fiction. 

When we begin to do this, we may unearth gems like I did with If I Stay. And for that, I am (and will be) appreciative.


  1. Do you plan on reading Where She Went? I read If I Stay because of this post so thank you. I liked the sequel more. I guess I preferred the "male voice" and the "unsupernaturalness" of it as opposed to If I Stay's out-of-body experience type of storytelling. But then I understand that that kind of method of telling the narrative is what fits the context.

    1. You know, I think I will give "Where She Went" a shot, if you recommend it! I was hesitant because I'm usually skeptical when it comes to sequels but I think I will give this one a chance since I really like Forman's writing style.