"I realize now that dying is easy. Living is hard."
Seventeen year old Mia and her family are enjoying a snow day in early February in Oregon. When the storm finishes suddenly, they decide to take a trip to visit her parents' old friends, Henry and Willow and their baby girl. They never make it. Their Buick is struck by a four-ton pickup truck and totally demolished.
When Mia "awakes" she is able to survey the accident scene and she sees her father lying dead on the road, her mother looking white as a ghoul. When Mia is unable to locate her younger brother, Teddy, she goes in search of him. But what she finds is her own body lying badly injured in a ditch near their completely destroyed vehicle. Not in her body but near it, Mia watches as emergency and police arrive on the crash scene and work to stabilize her so they can transport her to hospital. She is rushed by air ambulance to a trauma center where doctors work to save her. Mia watches from outside her body as all this happens. While she is out of her body she thinks back on her life, remembering various milestones and special moments which are told in flashback.
Mia began playing cello at age eight and had her first recital when she was ten. She was so nervous for the recital that she almost didn't perform, but her father encouraged her, explaining that everyone experiences this and has to learn to work through the nerves. When she was in grade nine her father found Mia a professional teacher, Professor Christie, who is a retired professor from the nearby university. Her teacher and others felt Mia was exceptional and that she should audition for Julliard in New York.
Mia's musical talent comes naturally as her father had a rock band for years. But when a second baby came along, her father decided to leave his band and become a teacher, much to the chagrin of his band mates and his best friend, Henry. But Mia's father simply tells Henry that some day he will understand.
Mia has a boyfriend, eighteen year old Adam Wilde who is the lead guitarist and singer in his emo-rock band, Shooting Star. The two met when Adam was in his junior year and Mia was a sophomore. He had been watching her practice in the music room and one day announced to Mia that he had tickets to a Yo Yo Ma concert at Arlene Schnitzer Hall in Portland. After the concert, the two gradually grow closer together, having their difficult moments but eventually falling in love.But as they get older and Adam moves on from high school to a nearby college, there relationship continues because of their mutual love of music. Ironically, music which brought them together, might now be the one thing that pushes them apart as they move into adulthood.
Mia's successful audition at Julliard is certain to lead to an offer of admission and with it the necessary move to New York and away from Adam. Auditioning at Julliard was her dad's mother, Gran's, idea. Mia prepared an audition tape, got her letters of reference together and sent in a recording. She was then invited to audition for a spot at the school and ended up going with her Gramps to San Francisco where the auditions were held. Mia played five pieces for her audition; a Shostakovich concerto, two Bach suites, all Tchaikovsky's Pezzo capriccioso and a movement from Ennio Morricone's The Mission.She was passionate and in the moment and her playing demonstrated this.
But despite this love of music, Mia is conflicted over the possibility of going to New York and what that will mean for her and Adam. Adam feels the same way as his band often has gigs in other cities, meaning he is often away from Mia on weekends. It becomes increasingly difficult to co-ordinate their lives.
Meanwhile in the present, Mia learns she has been badly injured; a collapsed lung, ruptured spleen, unknown internal bleeding and contusions on her brain. Her father's parents, Gran and Gramps are in the waiting room while she has surgery. After they see her, Gramps asks Gran about whether or not Mia can make a choice about living or not. It is at this point that Mia realizes whether she lives or dies is up to her.
"...He had listened to that nurse,too. He got it before I did.Adam doesn't arrive until 7:13pm in the evening but when he tries to see Mia he is told only family is allowed in to see Mia. Devastated, Adam enlists the help of Mia's best friend Kim and later on some of his band members in what turns out to be a futile attempt. But when Willow shows up at the hospital she manages to get Adam in to see Mia. As expected, Adam is devastated when he sees Mia.
If I stay. If I live. It's up to me.
All this business about medically induced comas is just doctor talk. It's not up to the doctors. It's not up to the absentee angels. It's not even up to God who, if He exists, is nowhere around right now. It's up to me."
Both Gramps and Mia's best friend ,Kim Schein, give Mia permission to die if that is what she wants. But Adam decides he wants to give Mia a reason to live. Will it be enough?
If I Stay is realistic fiction that effectively captures the horror and grief that permeates those left behind after a terrible tragedy and the difficult decision to carry on afterwards. Forman has crafted a novel that explores what it might be like to be lying in a state near death, aware of terrible loss and possibly wondering whether dying is the better choice over living. Mia in her in between state, knows her entire family is dead, her life changed forever. What if she has the choice to live or die? Can she find the courage to live?
Forman makes excellent use of flashbacks to give her readers some sense of Mia's family, her passion for music and to build the relationship between Adam and Mia thus setting the stage for her big decision. Both Adam and Mia are wonderfully realistic characters, opposites who attract. Adam is the emo-rocker whose loud music and mosh pits contrast with the refined world of Mia's classical music. They have a friendship and a common interest in music that leads gradually to a deeper relationship and finally to love.
Passion for music plays a central part of this novel as all the characters are in some way, invested in music and have a passion for music. Forman's portrayal of the classical music world, especially that of a young aspiring musician is accurate and informative. The author also captures some of the struggles that are common to many musicians; overcoming nerves, the hard work required to master an instrument, exhausting auditions and sometimes just wanting to take a break. It is this passion for music and her love for Adam that ultimately will play a significant part in Mia's final decision. Adam gives Mia something we all need, a reason for living and a reason for going on in the face of such heartrending loss.
Forman doesn't give her readers a sense of the loss Mia experiences - even during the accident scene. Mia's loss is muted on purpose due to Mia being neither alive nor dead. Contributing to this inability to feel is her narrative which focuses on what happened in her life prior to the accident. Mia finally experiences the fullness of that loss in the very last pages when Mia through the music Adam plays for her;
"Yo-Yo Ma continues to play, and it's like the piano and cello are being poured into my body...And the memories of my life as it was, and the flashes of it as it might be, are coming so fast and furious....
...somewhere inside of me I am crying, too, because I'm feeling things at last. I'm feeling not just the physical pain, but all that I have lost, and it is profound and catastrophic and will leave a crater in me that nothing will ever fill."
Overall If I Stay was a well-written, engaging novel. Forman has written a sequel to If I Stay which is titled Where She Went which is even better and is written from Adam's point of view.
If I Stay has been brought to the film screen and is scheduled to be released to movie theaters in August, 2014.
If I Stay by Gayle Forman
New York: Dutton Books 2009