Wednesday, April 15, 2009

If I Stay: A Review in Three Parts

An unusual review follows.

My sister, my brother-in-law and I all read the new book If I Stay by Gayle Forman (Dutton, April 2009), and I thought it would be interesting if we all reviewed it from our distinct points of view. Laurie, Matthew and I are all Oregon natives (like the characters in the book); we're all around the same age, just a few years younger than the parents, which means we were teenagers at the height of grunge. Laurie is a middle school librarian; Matthew is a writer with a rock band past; I'm a registered nurse.

I'm going to be honest: this isn't what you'd call a glowing review. That isn't what I want you to take away, though. The point is that we were all intrigued enough with If I Stay to want to delve deeply into it.

If I Stay is a puzzle to me. Despite all the things that annoyed me about this book... it's moving, humbling, and, odd as it might seem for such a melancholy book, a pleasure to read.

I thought the writing in If I Stay was extraordinarily passive. Almost everything is "told, rather than shown"--and yet bizarrely, even while I was reading it and being annoyed by it and knowing that isn't how good writing is supposed to be, I couldn't help understanding that the tone and method of storytelling are exactly right for the character and situations. Anything else would be untrue or manipulative.

I'm a nurse, and I found the hospital scenes had a lot of jarring inaccuracies--always allowing for different hospital policies in different places, there were things that didn't ring true. I've never heard a nurse referred to as "Nurse Ramirez" anywhere but on TV, and the entire overlong sequence about who gets to visit Mia struck me as overdramatic and unlikely, all the way through where the family friend exerts her influence because she was once a student nurse (?!) in the hospital. But other touches in the hospital had great resonance; I was struck by a paragraph in which Mia talks about the disregard doctors have for their patients' eyelids. I don't know whether that paragraph might seem odd or unnecessary to some readers, but this, to me, is exactly what someone in Mia's situation would be thinking about.

Sure, there's a really odd sex scene, and Mia didn't change much from age 10 to age 17, and there are other flaws one could pick out. It really doesn't matter that much. If I Stay is a fascinating exploration of relationships, life, and death.

I didn't always pay attention in college, but occasionally I'd hear something outrageous enough to lodge in my mind permanently. Like the day my neighbor across the hall, a cello player, remarked that his cello bow had cost $5000. Even a mediocre bow costs several hundred dollars, he explained, and they are very fragile. He did not allow his friends anywhere near his bow, let alone the cello itself.

My point here is that a cello bow is very unlikely to be used as a sex toy. That is count one against If I Stay, although I guess that's no way to talk anyone out of reading it.

Next: Mia was reluctant to join the family jam session on the basis that the cello would not sound good with the rock guitars. This doesn't make any sense. There are dozens if not hundreds of good rock songs with cello in them, and Mia's dad would know that and would have been playing them since the day his daughter said the word "cello". (Here is one of my favorites.) I mean, she might still be bashful about playing with the family, but not for that reason. "And even though you wouldn't think it, the cello didn't sound half bad with all those guitars. In fact, it sounded pretty amazing." Well, duh. No instrument sounds more like the human voice than the cello. It goes with everything.

Next: I could see the end of this book coming like, you know, an inevitable car crash. I knew it would be sappy and uplifting and I would feel jerked around. I was right, and I was mad, but I was only mad because the book up to that point (aside from the cello bow part) was so unsentimental, which is hard to be when you're a book about a family tragedy. The writing is spare and quiet and forceful. The dad is as cool as I'd like to be someday. I wanted the good writing and the cool dad to support a story that would surprise me and make me think and make me not want to hit my head against something when it was over.

It didn't work out that way. But I'm definitely intrigued enough to check out Gayle Forman's next book and see if she can manage it there.

I expected it to be Adam: the effortlessly cool, very smart, and very perceptive guy in a rock band--just the kind of boyfriend I wished for when I was in high school. Or Dad, who transformed from rock musician to responsible-but-still-hip father and English teacher--and who is, of course, really the one whose age group I'm closest to. But when I thought hard about If I Stay, I realized that the character I most loved was Gramps. I love my grandfathers dearly, just as Mia does Gramps. My own grandfathers, and my father, are like Gramps. They don't say much, but every now and then, what they say is the most important thing in the world. The moment when Gramps tells Mia, "It's okay. If you want to go." Even though he wants her to stay so much that his heart is breaking. That's what this book is all about.

Almost every page of If I Stay came with a flash of recognition for me, usually for a person, because each character is a real person who reminded me of someone I know; and sometimes for a place, a Thai restaurant in Portland, or a rock band playing at the X-Ray Cafe. The lives lived in this book are familiar, making Mia's loss feel very personal to me. I don't know if this will resonate in the same way with teenage readers. It's a reflective and quiet book. The couple of students who have read If I Stay responded, quietly, that it was OK. (Granted, that's the most common response I hear, except for a select few titles.) While this is a book about love and death and rock and roll, it's mainly a book about a happy family. For some readers that will be enough.

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