I recently attended the Penguin Teen Australia Live Event, which was a showcase of the upcoming young adult books for 2014, and they had a little book stall where you could buy books. Not just Penguin books either, but books from other publishers that the staff at Penguin love so much they want everyone to read, which I think is really cool. I grabbed a book published by Random House Australia that I have been wanting to read literally for years. That book was If I Stay by Gayle Forman. I started reading it a few nights later and I was hooked. I flew through this book in a couple of nights and eagerly ordered the sequel, Where She Went, which I read over two afternoons, practically inhaling every word.
This is tough review because I don’t want to give too much away for either book, so it’s going to be brief, but hopefully my words will convince you to go out and buy/borrow the books ASAP.
If I Stay tells the story of Mia Hall, a seventeen year old high school senior who is a talented classical cellist, preparing to graduate and head off to college. Her parents are extremely cool – her father is an ex-punk band member and her mother is cooler than cool and tough as nails when she needs to be. Mia’s little brother Teddy idolises and adores her despite his rambunctious nature. Music is a huge part of all of their lives, with Mia’s love of classical music making her the odd one out. Everyone else in the house favours bands like The Ramones or The Smiths. Still, Mia’s parents did everything they could to nuture her talent and love for the cello and at seventeen, Mia’s talents have surpassed many of her teacher’s skills. She’s also in a committed relationship with Adam, the singer/guitarist in an emocore band called Shooting Star who are on the brink of stardom.
When school is cancelled one snowy day, Mia and her family head off on a day trip to visit friends, but an horrific car accident leaves Mia in a coma, on the brink of death. However unconscious her body is, though, Mia’s soul (for lack of a better word) is alive and well, and watching everything in the hospital as it happens. She sees her family and Adam gathering around her, willing her to pull through each time her body threatens to give up. Mia can’t understand why she’s still there, watching everything happen, when she’s unconscious and so close to death. She begins remembering her life and the important events that shaped her life up to this point and she comes to the realisation that she’s not dead yet because it’s up to her. Her decision to stay or not is unmade, and that’s why her soul is hanging around waiting. Living or dying is completely reliant on her deciding to do so.
One of the things I liked about this book is the way the chapters alternate between Mia’s past and Mia’s present in beautifully a seamless way. As we learn about Mia, her family, and her relationship with Adam, we also witness her emotion and grief at having to make such a weighty decision about living or dying. It’s here that author Gayle Forman shines. The way she frames the story around in both the past and present, and uses music to set the mood of a particular scene is superbly done. Whether it’s a happy family scene or a bittersweet romantic moment with Adam, Forman’s use of music adds an invisible but invaluable layer to the prose that most authors wouldn’t think to include. As the story heads towards its emotional conclusion, readers will feel as though they’re sitting right next to Mia, sharing the weight of her decision. This is a gut wrenching, but poignantly beautiful story, and I guarantee you won’t want to put it down.
Where She Went is Forman’s sequel to If I Stay, this time told from Adam’s point of view. It’s been three years since the accident that altered Adam’s life, and much has changed. His band, Shooting Star, are now world famous, and he’s living in LA with his actress girlfriend. Things are far from perfect though. Adam is anxious all the time, moody, and sullen with everyone around him, even his band mates. He relies on cigarettes and anxiety medication to get him through the days and has closed himself off from everyone. As the band prepares to embark on a European tour, Adam has one night in New York on his own before he flies out to London, and it quickly becomes clear to him that this night is going to change the course of his future.
As with the first book, Forman alternates the chapters between the past and present, and through Adam’s simple but emotional words we find out what transpired after those days in the hospital with Mia and how it changed Adam’s life. Forman once again uses music to set the tone of the chapters, but this time it’s Shooting Star’s breakthrough hit album and the evocative lyrics written by Adam that convey the grief and sadness that enveloped him after Mia’s accident.
This book pulled me in straight away. Adam’s sadness seeped into me as I read, and to read about how he felt/feels about Mia after such a horrible event has occurred was simultaneously beautiful and tragic. This novel perfectly describes the realness of relationships ending suddenly and the aftermath of not being able to move on. It was really nice to revisit these characters, sad as much of the book was. I was happy I read the two books in succession, I feel like they should be read as a pair.
People, I highly, highly recommend these two books. Beautifully written and achingly bittersweet, they’ll take your breath away.
If I Stay has been made into a film, due for release later this year – you can view the the (slightly spoilery) trailer here. I think it looks quite good!
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