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Staff Picks: “If I Stay” by Gayle Forman

“If you stay, I’ll do whatever you want. I’ll quit the band, go with you to New York. But if you need me to go away, I’ll do that, too. I was talking to Liz and she said maybe coming back to your old life would be too painful, that maybe it’d be easier for you to erase us. And that would suck, but I’d do it. I can lose you like that if I don’t lose you today. I’ll let you go. If you stay.”

Mia begins a normal day in the Hall household, happy that school’s been called off for snow though the weather won’t prevent them from going on a family outing–only they never make it to their intended destination. Mia’s parents and younger brother are killed in a car accident that leaves her in a coma. The story unfolds as Mia decides whether or not to stay or go.

If I Stay is a YA novel with heart. Some YA fiction can come across as condescending or trite, preachy or unrealistic, but this one is well-written but approachable and a tear-jerker without being sad simply for the sake of it. Though I was initially skeptical about a story narrated by a girl in a coma, I was completely able to suspend belief and be right there with Mia, watching her friends and family grieve.  

Mia life revolves around music; she’s a gifted cellist, and the description of her playing, how music feels to her, was riveting and inspiring. Music is what brought Mia and her boyfriend Adam together. He’s the leader of a popular indie rock bank, Shooting Star, and they bond over their mutual love for music. Their relationship is realistic, not angsty or overly-dramatic. My favorite scenes of the book are when Mia recounts their first date, a trip to the Yo-Yo Ma concert, and a fireside jam where Mia’s rocker parents and friends and Adam convince Mia to bring her cello out and play with them. This story is so moving I was anxious to check out the sequel as soon as I finished it!

Where She Went book cover

“My first impulse is not to grab her or kiss her or yell at her. I simply want to touch her cheek, still flushed from the night’s performance. I want to cut through the space that separates us, measured in feet–not miles, not continents, not years–and take a callused finger to her face… But I can’t touch her. This is a privilege that’s been revoked.”

Where She Went, the sequel to If I Stay, is narrated by Mia’s boyfriend Adam, and picks up three years after Mia decided to stay in this world, despite the loss of her family. Not long after her recovery and her first year at Juliard, she ends her relationship with Adam with no explanation, breaking his heart.

Adam channels his heart ache into dozens of new songs that become the album Collateral Damage, which has catapulted his band Shooting Star to super-stardom, which isn’t the fun ride he’d thought it would be. The songs weren’t exactly cathartic and he feels cut off from the band. Though he’s got a new actress girlfriend, he’s still pining for Mia, his first love.

As if fate has brought them together like their love of music originally did, Adam is in New York City on the eve of his tour, and happens to catch Mia’s show. They embark on a tour of the city, getting to know each other again, as Adam recounts his downward spiral in flashbacks.

It would have been easy for Adam’s voice to come off as whiny or emo.  But Gayle Foreman’s beautiful writing captures his pain and manages to make it just as moving as Mia’s story without trivializing the grief she has obviously dealt with after her traumatic car accident.

I love Mia for her strength. Her determination to rise to the top of the music world is admirable. Though she acknowledges her past treatment of Adam was unfair, she knows that it was what she had to do to in order to deal with her grief.

These two books are heartfelt stories of young love, family, friendship, and the grieving process. I’d recommend them to any fan of contemporary young adult romance.     ~ Molly, YA Staff

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