I stayed up reading ‘If I Stay’ by Gayle Forman until the early hours of the morning, unable to emotionally disengage from the novel until I knew how it ended. ‘If I Stay’ fundamentally revolves around a choice: after a horrific car accident, a comatose teenage girl (Mia) must decide whether to die, or whether to wake up and live a life in which her mother, father and younger brother all died in the crash. My mother said something interesting when she heard what I was reading – “teens find it much easier to read about death”. Critics (and there are plenty of them) often say YA literature is mushy, easy to read and full of the sort of wish-fulfillment adults supposedly ought to give up as a sign of their maturity. There are, of course, books like this in the YA canon, just as there are in the literature marketed at any other age group. Yet I’ve found that YA literature often focuses unabashedly and apologetically on the ‘big’ concepts – love, death, life, loss. Their relative lack of subtlety in theme doesn’t make them less worthy of admiration. Just the opposite, in my opinion. Most adults wouldn’t want to think about the devastating concept at the heart of ‘If I Stay’. Yet, as my mother astutely pointed out, teens seem to enjoy stretching their feelings to the limit. This passion isn’t something that should be criticized.
“Sometimes you make choices in life and sometimes choices make you.”
“I just wanted to tell you that I understand if you go. It’s okay if you have to leave us. It’s okay if you want to stop fighting.”
Despite its harrowing central premise, ‘If I Stay’ somehow actually doesn’t veer into the maudlin or the mawkish, a testament to the author’s skill. It would have been all too easy for Forman to twist the knife throughout the novel, but she resists. Of course, some moments are unavoidably traumatic. Having initially believed that her little brother (Teddy) had survived the crash, Mia discovers that he has in fact died in a nearby hospital. This horrendous realisation sends her body crashing, signalling the shift in her decision towards giving up and dying too. Yet she clings on. The point is that the novel isn’t about death but about life. Mia hovers between the two states, ruminating often on how easy it would be for her to die rather than face the anguish of living having suffered through such a tragic accident and the sudden death of her entire immediate family. The novel is full of flashbacks, attempting to highlight to the reader what this loss would actually entail for the protagonist. Yet these flashbacks also illustrate another point: that life should be celebrated. Mia’s relationship with her best friend (Kim), her love story with her musician boyfriend (Adam), and her interactions with her parents, brother and grandparents are all given extra weight because of the predicament she finds herself in. Small moments are raised from the mundane to the sublime.
Given even more precedence than her friendships and relationships is Mia’s love of classical music, specifically the cello. Music in this book seems to be a metaphor for life itself, or some sort of powerful force; it is almost a character in itself throughout the novel. Music brought Mia’s parents together; it was the catalyst for Mia and Adam’s love story; and it almost tore them apart. Mia sings a song her father composed to her baby brother, and characters discuss the songs they dream will be played at their funeral. Mia notices that the song playing on the car radio before the crash continues playing afterwards. Life, and music, go on even after tragedy and death.
As you can probably tell from the abundance of gifs, ‘If I Stay’ has been adapted into a movie starring Chloë Grace Moretz. Get ahead of the game and read the book now! Tissues advised, yet despite a multitude of deaths – it’s surprisingly uplifting.