You know, as you read the first few pages of Gayle Forman’s If I Stay, that something devastating is about to happen to this amazing family, a family celebrating a snow day with slightly burnt chocolate-chip pancakes and a drive to see old friends and grandparents. It makes reading those pages very difficult, because just underneath all the happiness—and it is genuine, believable happiness, with just enough quirk to stay on the right side of cheesy—is tragedy, or the potential for tragedy.
And then it happens. I’d call this a spoiler, but it’s not really a spoiler as much as the central fact of the book. Everyone in seventeen-year-old Mia’s immediate family—her once punk-rock now tweed-donning teacher dad, her fierce and loving and tough mom, her curly-haired little brother who’s still in T-ball—all of them are killed in a car accident. All but Mia.
Mia is in a coma. But she’s also outside of herself, watching the aftermath of the accident and deciding whether or not she can return to her body and to a world that’s no longer the one she knew, a world in which some of the people she loved the most are gone.
Forman reveals the details of Mia’s life, from her relationship with her emo-punk rocking boyfriend Adam to her friendship with her devoted best friend Kim to her ongoing dance with her musical partner: her cello—an instrument that holds the potential to deliver Mia both to everything she’s every wanted and, possibly, away from everyone she’s ever loved. These details are interspersed with Mia’s observations of the hospital, from her visitors to her nurses to her own battered body, creating a stark contrast, a contrast that drives home again and again how different her life will be…if she decides to return to it, if she decides to stay.
Though I could not put it down, I’d be lying if I called If I Stay an easy read. There’s nothing easy about reading a book that reminds us of how close we are—even in our happiest moments—to tragedy, to loss beyond loss. Yet that’s also what I loved about the book: Forman’s willingness to dive headfirst into this truth, that even the deepest joy has an underside of loss, even if—maybe even especially if—it’s the potential of loss. After all, isn’t that potential that makes the joy even deeper and greater and more moving? Maybe we only finally start to truly fear death once we discover something we really want. This is the question Mia must face in Forman’s novel: whether there’s something in life she wants enough that she’s willing to keep going, keep living, even when she knows that the life she’ll return to will be nearly unrecognizable and more difficult than she can even start to grasp. That’s the struggle of If I Stay, the question that remains, that ties us to Mia until the very last page, and, perhaps, beyond.
[Forman, Gayle. If I Stay. New York: Penguin, 2009.]