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If I StayReview - If I Stay
by Gayle Forman
Penguin Audio, 2009
Review by Christian Perring
Jan 19th 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 3)

If I Stay is a short novel for young adults that ratchets up the emotional stakes early on and keeps them at a high level all the way through.  Adopting a similar ploy to The Lovely Bones, it is narrated by a high school senior looking on the rest of the world as they react to a tragedy.  Mia was with her parents and little brother driving in the snow when they were in an accident.  Her parents are killed, and her brother is injured.  She views from above as she is rushed to the hospital and is operated on, on the border between life and death.  She sees the reaction of her grandparents, her friends, their families, and her boyfriend.  Mia is a cellist, while her father was a rock musician who has recently retrained to be a middle school teacher.  Her boyfriend Adam is also in a band.  Mia looks back on her family's story as she developed her great musical skill, and her wonderful romance with Adam.  Now, as she looks on from above, the loss of her parents and maybe her music career are so devastating that she does not know whether she wants to stay living.  The story switches between present and past, and the scenes set in the present are full of small details meant to make it all more immediate: we see how the doctors handle her body on the operating table, and a social worker has "frizzy gray hair and a coffee stain on her blouse."  It's a deeply romantic story about Mia's love of music, her love of her family, and especially her love of Adam. 

          It's an unusual novel about an Oregon family that listens to NPR together and has secular values.  Although this is about a near-death experience, there are no shining lights or angels here.  So the profound existential crisis Mia faces is resolved in non-religious ways.  That is extremely welcome, since it is a somewhat unusual approach in modern American culture.  It is also a powerful depiction of shock and grief, both for Mia herself and also for those who know her.  Yet it is all too much.  Maybe it is unfair to call it overwrought, since the powerful emotions are appropriate to the situations described.  However, from the moment that Mia sees her father's brains on the road after the accident, it feels like Foreman overindulges herself, and it is a relief when the book is over.  Still, some readers may enjoy the combination of angst and joy in a life full of music. 

The unabridged audiobook is appropriately emotional with occasional cello music coming in at the big moments, and the reading by Kirsten Potter plays up the anguish and love.

 

© 2010 Christian Perring         

          

Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.


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