Goodreads synopsis: Choices. Seventeen-year-old Mia is faced with some tough ones: Stay true to her first love—music—even if it means losing her boyfriend and leaving her family and friends behind? Then one February morning Mia goes for a drive with her family, and in an instant, everything changes. Suddenly, all the choices are gone, except one. And it’s the only one that matters. If I Stay is a heart-achingly beautiful book about the power of love, the true meaning of family, and the choices we all make.
If I Stay by Gayle Forman seems to be one of the most popular YA books of the past ten or so years. For that reason, I had really high hopes for it, but I was generally disappointed. Of course, the events of this story are fantastical. We do not get to choose whether we live or die or whatever when we’re in a coma. Yet, despite this, I feel like this book is extremely unrealistic when it comes to Mia’s thoughts and actions as a ghost. (I don’t believe that’s exactly what she is, but for lack of a better word, I will call her a ghost in this review.)
Firstly, I was really bothered by Mia’s initial reaction to the crash. She very casually comments about her father’s brains on the street, sees her mother, and goes looking for her brother. There is almost no emotion here, just factual descriptions of what she’s seeing. I expected a fall to the ground and an intense sobbing session, but nothing close to that ever happens in the book, even once she gets to the hospital and has some time to really understand that what’s happening is real. The only person she seems really concerned about is Adam, her boyfriend, which was very annoying. (I’m also not really sold on the apparent intensity of their relationship and their feelings for each other, but I don’t really want to get into that.) Now, I’m willing to believe that, as a ghost, since her physical sensations are dulled, her emotions and thoughts may be dulled as well. But this isn’t said, so as far as I’m concerned it’s not an explanation.
Secondly, I feel that Mia in general is fairly problematic. Besides her failure to show much emotion for the death of her family, Mia is not a flawed character, and that makes her difficult to relate to and difficult to like. She’s talented, intelligent, apparently beautiful (according to Adam), and she does well enough socially. She’s a classic not-like-the-other-girls girl who is really very typical, and that’s one of the worst things you could do to a female character in my opinion.
Thirdly, another thing that Mia doesn’t care about is what I’ve been calling in my head “ghost physics”. We learn that Mia can open doors and things like that but no one notices, and we know that she can’t walk through walls or transport herself anywhere automatically. Fine. But I have so many more questions. Can she touch people? Do they feel anything if she does? Can she write messages that people can see? What happens if someone were to walk in her direction and she doesn’t notice? I would be willing to believe that there would be some sort of charm that makes the people around her just decide not to go in her direction (I think there’s something like that mentioned in Harry Potter). But again, this isn’t mentioned. And I don’t just want to know about ghost physics as a reader. I don’t understand why Mia doesn’t want to know these things. I think that after grieving over my family for a while, I would start figuring out what I was capable of as a ghost. And I would have some commentary that went something like, “Holy shit, I’m a fucking ghost.” I understand how this isn’t really relevant to the plot, but it’s relevant to my being able to fall under the spell of the book, so to speak. I can’t feel fully engaged if I’m not satisfied with the laws of the physical world.
What I did like about this book was the choice to write it in first person. It made sense with the amount of flashbacks, and it worked fairly well. I think that this is a hard thing to write about, ghosts not being real and all, so I appreciate the risk that Forman took. Honestly, the more I write, the more criticisms I think of, and it’s getting exhausting, so I will stop here. I feel as though I may have been a little harsh, and I would love to hear what other people think of this book, especially what people liked about it. I’d love for someone to challenge me on one of my points so we can debate it!