If I Stay
by Gayle Forman
Recommended on NPR’s “You Must Read This” feature, If I Stay is a young-adult novel that doesn’t read like one: the writing is evocative, the story isn’t maudlin, the romance almost (!) believable. The novel does have the quick-read characteristic of YA, though–no dense writing here. The premise, however, is heavy: a well-adjusted (maybe a bit too much?) family sets out on a snow day adventure and in the slip of a tire is involved in a fatal crash. Daughter Mia, the 17-year-old protagonist, walks along the side of the road and sees her mother and father, dead. Then she comes upon herself being frantically worked on by paramedics and loaded into a screaming ambulance. Is she dead, she wonders, as she climbs in to the ambulance and heads to the hospital?
Mia can’t feel her body, nor can she walk through walls and people like the ghosts she’s seen in movies; this sidelined Mia doesn’t feel pain. Caught in uncertainty, Mia watches, listens, and struggles to make sense of her new self. We watch her dear Gram and Gramp visit; we see friends and extended family arrive to hold vigil. And all the while, Forman takes us back and forth through Mia’s short seventeen years as she remembers … the birth of her brother, her punk dad’s transformation to retro hipster, her first kiss, summer at music camp, a Labor Day picnic. Never maudlin, Forman’s writing is clean and offers a beautiful elegy for a girl not yet dead.
Some of the health care professionals come off a bit harsh and unfeeling; this would be a great read for student nurses and doctors. Forman is not pedantic–I worried throughout the book that it would turn into a treatise for pulling the plug as Mia’s family tried to make sense of her chances for recovery. I fretted that there would be a grand heavenly reunion with her family–which I hate in any young adult movie, song, or book, given the suicide rate among my often-depressed high school students. No, the choice to stay (or leave) was Mia’s. During a visit, Mia’s favorite nurse Ramirez encourages her grandparents to talk to her: “She’s running the show. Maybe she’s just biding her time. So you talk to her. You tell her to take all the time she needs, but to come on back. You’re waiting for her.”
And so we wait for Mia to decide.
[A word about the title of this post–in the tradition of many newer YA series, my paperback copy included a few pages of Forman’s sequel Where She Went. Run, don’t walk away from this book! It was everything awful about teen fiction–everything If I Stay was not.]