One of the best new books I read in 2010 was If I Stay by Gayle Forman. Automatically I checked it out in 2009 at my school's Scholastic book fair because of the editor, Julie Strauss-Gabel. There are few books she's edited I haven't liked. The story intrigued me, but not enough to lay out the price for a hardback at the time. (Limited teacher's budget and all that.) So I put it back in favor of a couple of paperbacks. I wish I hadn't.
I read If I Stay in two sittings. The story moves easily, like a well composed musical score. Emotional highs playing counterpoint to the tragedy of the plot. Mia, the main character, is easily likable and readable. While she describes herself as shy, her expressive narrative is open, revealing her innermost thoughts and doubts and delights. All the time Mia relives her life through her memories, we as readers are conscious of the despairing undertone of it all.
Mia's parents die in the first chapter in a graphically described scene of a car accident. The fate of her little brother, Teddy, remains unknown through much of the novel. Her true love boyfriend Adam also remains absent for most of the present day narrative. The lovely, lonely girl watches herself in the ICU, watches relatives and friends worry and mourn, and is unable to reach them in her ghostly state. The mood of these pieces resemble the somber tones of Mia's chosen instrument--the cello--in hollow, aching sounds. But this is only half of the novel.
All of Forman's minor timber scenes interweave flawlessly with Mia's recollections of brighter memories. Her first kiss. Teddy as a curly-haired baby. The day she first saw the cello. Her parents' metamorphosis from leather-and-stud wearing punk-rocker couple to a tightly-knit, ironically-retro family. We see, through Mia's memories, all aspects of love. The thrill of the erotic with Adam, the secure bonds of the familial, and the sometimes stressful challenges of friendship as we see in Mia's interactions with her best friend Kim. Both the past memories and the present observations complete Mia's life story like a beautiful song, the kind that grips you when you hear it, the kind that locks into your soul.
FOR EDUCATORS: If I Stay is a perfect book for independent or small group reading assignments. While the size is small, the canvas is large. There are plenty of emotional, social, and musical connections students can make to both the main character of Mia and to the significant people in her life--Adam, her parents, Teddy, Kim. Themes of self and social identity constantly pull the story together. In fact, Mia's central conflict--should she stay, as in stay alive, or go, as in let her body and consciousness die--is the story of her self-identity. Who is she without her family? If she were to stay and they are gone, would she still be herself? It's an interesting question Forman raises without ever answering it. Possibly, there will be an answer in her forth coming sequel Where She Went scheduled to come out this spring.
The self-identity theme is also present in Mia's choice to play the cello. For her, the instrument drew her, compelled her to play. But Mia worries over what this choice says about her nature and how she fits into the fabric of her family and friends. The fact she loves the cello and classical music makes her feel the constant outsider to her family and boyfriend who are notable on the local rock scene. At one point she seriously wonders if she were adopted. This nagging doubt echoes Hamlet's constant struggle for self-identification. "To be or not to be, that is the question..." which is in fact Mia's question as well with the entire novel as her soliloquy.
In another Hamlet connection, Polonius cautions his son Laertes with these words, "This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man." In If I Stay, Mia learns the value of Polonius's admonition. Her Halloween transformation into a rocker chick makes her believe, for a night at least, she should be someone else, that she would be better as someone else. And while it is thrilling and fun to live life as she thinks she should be, by the end of the night she realizes, through Adam's gentle reminder, she is loved not because of who she could be, but for who she is. And it is Mia alone who faces the truth of her self in the final scenes of the novel. She decides whether or not to be true or false. She is the only one who can make the choice.
FOR READERS: As a reader, I loved this book. The first few pages didn't hook me though. I thought they were slow with the happy family scene over the excitement of a snow day. It isn't until much later the tragedy of that scene truly comes through. By page 15 "The car is eviscerated" and so is Mia's life as she knew it. Forman does something masterful here by letting the sound of the radio continue to play Beethoven while Mia discovers, in a very detached way, the accident. Her mother's bloodless body, her father's brains scattered over the road, her own broken, twisted form lying in a ditch. Shock doesn't begin to cover the emotions I felt when I read this scene. From that point on, I could not put the book down. I literally fell asleep with it in my hands.
The novel reads like a score of music. If you've never listened to classical music, do. You will need to if you really want to understand Mia. Yo-Yo Ma is a real cellist whose work inspires. Add him to your iTunes collection, search for videos of him on YouTube if you have to, but listen. Turn up the volume and listen with the lights off. Then you will hear what Mia does in the voice of the cello. It's a voice no human can mimic, full of sorrow and longing and hope. Just like Mia.
But classical music is only part of the story. Mia's earliest musical teeth are cut on greats in other genres--rock, punk, metal, reggae. Being more the classical variety of musician myself, I am grateful for the author's notes on the musical references in the back of the Speak paperback edition of the book. I've listened to the songs and artists Forman references and have found a few I've added to my collection, and was surprised to find a few I recognized by sound but hadn't known by name. Music is a huge part of Mia's life, so it's naturally a huge part of the story as well. But the real craft of the book is how seamlessly and hauntingly (no pun intended) Forman composes the story like a score, a tribute to the real family tragedy in Forman's life which inspired this work.
If you've not yet read If I Stay, don't wait for the movie version. Buy it now. It's well worth the price.