Saturday, September 25, 2010

If I Stay

Gayle Forman
Speak, 2009, 234 pp., $8.99
ISBN: 978-0-14-241543-6

I was vaguely familiar with If I Stay, a novel by Gayle Forman, having spotted its eye-catching cover on bookstore displays. It wasn't until the owner of a local shop that specializes in literature for children and teenagers recommended it to me, however, that I decided to read it. Even then I was skeptical, a feeling the cover endorsement, which suggests the book will appeal to Twilight fans, did little to assuage. In retrospect, it seems the comparison was made at the expense of If I Stay, for while it might sell books, the latter is a much stronger novel from a literary standpoint.

When the story opens, Mia, a senior in high school, recalls a blustery winter morning spent at a breakfast table drinking coffee and chatting amiably with her family about a snowstorm that kept them home from work and school. An exceptional cellist with the opportunity to attend Julliard on a scholarship, Mia is in many ways an atypical young adult protagonist. She enjoys spending time with her mother and father, adores her much younger brother, Teddy, and has a boyfriend whose band has experienced an upswing in popularity. Set against this backdrop, readers are unprepared for a subsequent scene in which a truck traveling at sixty-miles-per-hour broadsides the car in which Mia and her family are traveling, claiming the lives of her parents and irrevocably shattering her own. When she regains consciousness, Mia views the aftermath of the accident from outside her body. She watches as paramedics work frantically to keep her alive, and grows anxious when she is unable to locate her brother and determine whether he survived the wreck. Hours later, having undergone a surgery, and hooked up to a life-support system in a critical care unit, Mia faces a crucial decision--whether to live and confront the pain that must inevitably accompany her loss, or embrace the solace death offers her. As Mia wrestles with her decision, the narrative shifts between the past and present, first situating readers in the hospital as devastated friends and family members gather to await word of her fate, and then revealing happier moments in the character's past through a series of carefully orchestrated flashbacks.

If the novel has a shortcoming, it's that scenes are occasionally overplayed. Episodes in which Mia recounts the early stages of her romance with Matthew, for example, sometimes run long and, in certain instances, border on melodrama. That said, smartly written and emotionally raw scenes such as those that show Mia wrestling with the fallout of the accident, and the choice she faces between life and death, offset these otherwise minor flaws. That the characters are thoroughly developed, complex figures heightens the story's impact on readers, as we come to care about them. Indeed, it is a credit to Forman that the characters, rather than the subject matter, drive the story.

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