The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

Two roads diverged... (Review: If I Stay by G. Forman)

If I Stay
Gayle Forman
Doubleday 2009

"In a single moment everything changes.  Seventeen-year-old Mia has no memory of the accident; she can only recall riding along the snow-wet Oregon road with her family.  Then, in a blink, she finds herself watching as her own damaged body is taken from the wreck...

A sophisticated, layered, and heartachingly beautiful story about the power of family and friends, the choices we all make - and the ultimate choice Mia commands".

(Blurb courtesy of

I wasn't sure how this book would turn out when I first read about it. I thought that the premise was excellent but that it could easily stray into rather maudlin territory and get a bit melodramatic and woe-is-me-ish (and woe is her, but it could have been really over the top).  I am happy to report that I was completely wrong.

If I Stay starts off with a snapshot of a typical family morning with protagonist Mia and her family rejoicing over the fact that a fall of snow has given them all the day off work and school.  Mia, her mum, dad and much younger brother head out for a day of visiting friends and family.  They never make it.  I was really surprised at how quickly the accident cam upon them - I thought that there would be a bit more expositioning and getting to know the characters, but no.  It happens, as I suppose all accidents do, incredibly quickly and shockingly and readers are made aware of the implications immediately.  I liked this - I really would have been disappointed if poor Mia had been floating about wondering what was going on for half the book, but she realises immediately what has happened to her.  I think I started to cry at about this point and, if I'm being honest, kept going on and off until the last page.

The structure of the book from this point on is really clever.  At the time of the accident, we know that Mia is a cellist of some talent, is close to her family and has a boyfriend called Adam who is yet to be "seen" by readers.  After the accident a series of flashbacks take us through Mia's life (from the age of about 8) to the present day.  These go into her relationship with Adam, her parents, her grandparents and her music.  As we meet Adam and her grandparents "in person" so to speak, we are also learning what they mean to Mia through flashbacks.  This narrative structure really helps the reader to piece together exactly what Mia has to stay for and also what she has lost - the weight of which could easily convince her to leave.

The relationships and characters that we learn about from Mia really got under my skin.  Firstly, her parents.  They really were fantastically written as three-dimensional people with their own lives and issues as opposed to a standard mum/dad model (you know the one - loving/caring/strict but you don't really know much about them other than they are parents of the protagonist).  At first I felt that they were almost too cool, but the back information given about them made them into real people whom I could totally imaging raising their kids as described.  to be honest, I would really love to read a book about them  at some point.  Mia's grandparents were equally interesting, again never slipping into stereotype - I particularly liked the portrayal of her Grandfather as a very human, complex man (not just some old duffer sitting in the corner doling out grumpiness and sage advice).  There there is Adam.  I was really surprised and delighted at this portrayal of a real relationship - a very real love story where two very different people have to work on staying together, just like people in real relationships do every day.  It was refreshing to read this in YA fiction, as it isn't something that you always see.  Adam and Mia are both mature enough to realise that they have different goals and that they may have to make sacrifices to stay together - something which carefully informs Mia's decision making process after the accident.  I liked both of them a lot.

Several days after finishing this book, the themes covered are still dancing around the back of my skull making me think about my family, friends and what there is in life to gain and lose - any book, especially one as slight as this (it comes in at just over 200 pages), that can make you ponder the big questions in life like this certainly gets a massive thumbs up from me.

It did, however, take me two days after finishing it to pick myself up from my puddle of tears and get down to the bookshop where I promptly picked up a tale of zombie love (verdict still out, review coming soon) in order to cheer myself up - nothing like love between the undead to bring a smile to the face, I always say.  You can have too much of real life, you know, and If I Stay hits you over the head with reality something awful - all be it in an entirely worthwhile and thoughtful way.
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