Children's Book Review: If I Stay

If I Stay by Gayle Forman (Dutton/Penguin, $16.99, 978052542100/0525421033, 208 pp. ages 14-up)

What makes life worth living? Family? Friends? Music? Love? Seventeen-year-old Mia asks herself these questions after she and her family suffer a tragic car accident one wintry Oregon morning. At the time of the crash, Mia had her eyes closed in the back seat, taking in the first notes of Beethoven's Cello Sonata No. 3, the piece she'd planned to practice if the snow day had not separated her from her cello at school. By page 12, Mia knows that her parents died on impact, and as she searches frantically for her eight-year-old brother, Teddy, she finds instead her own body: "Am I dead?" she wonders. She watches herself being medevaced to Portland, where she had planned to hear her boyfriend, Adam, perform with his rock band, Shooting Star, which is on a fast track to success. In the 24 hours during which the novel takes place, Forman skillfully moves between Mia's out-of-body experience and related snippets of memory. At the sight of her grandparents in the hospital waiting room, Mia recalls how her grandmother first planted the seed that led to an audition for Juilliard and how, when her Gran sprained her ankle and couldn't accompany Mia to her audition, silent, steadfast Gramps stepped in. As Mia wonders how Adam will get word of her accident, she thinks about their first date--to hear Yo-Yo Ma play--and when Adam confided that what first attracted him to her was her passion for the cello ("I'm obsessed with music and even I don't get transported like you do," he tells her).
Throughout Mia's first-person narrative, Forman seamlessly threads musical references--some overt, such as Mia's response to hearing Yo-Yo Ma play ("That man has a way of making the cello sound like a crying woman one minute, a laughing child the next. Listening to him, I'm always reminded of why I started playing cello in the first place--that there is something so human and expressive about it"), others that make clear how music is part of the fiber of Mia's being ("I thought of the tuning fork I used to adjust my cello. Hitting it sets off vibrations in the note of A--vibrations that keep growing, and growing, until the harmonic pitch fills up the room. That's what Adam's grin was doing to me during dinner"); in Mia and Adam's first experience of intimacy, they "play" each other as cellist and guitarist. At one point, as Mia's body lies comatose in the hospital, a nurse suggests to Mia's grandparents that it is up to Mia whether she stays or whether she will give up the struggle and join her parents. This idea gives weight to each of Mia's memories, as Forman follows the heroine's movement, like a bow against the strings of her cello, between the two choices. The author endows the narrative with as much humor as poignancy and lays bare the challenges Mia has encountered in each of her relationships as well as the breakthroughs, leaving readers in suspense until the final bars.--Jennifer M. Brown


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