17-year old cello prodigy, Mia, faces an inexplicable choice in the aftermath of a horrific car accident. With her entire family dead and her consciousness seemingly thrown from her mangled, comatose body, will she choose to return alone to the world of the living or finalize the separation to join the unknown fate of her loved ones?
This book took a unique, non-formulaic approach to telling a story—I have to applaud it for that. But I'm sorry to say the approach didn't really work for this reader. The primary difficulty arose because the car accident happens so very early on in the book, we've barely been introduced to any of these people who's lives are then cut short. It sounds callous in a sense, but I didn't really get a chance to know them or decide if I cared about their fate. And then they were gone. So I erected an immediate mental wall against the idea of becoming attached to them, even when Mia starts the getting-to-know-us flashbacks to show readers why they should care that these people are now dead. Compounding the connection difficulty, Mia's mental detachment from bodily sensations resulted in this reader sharing in that disengaged point of view.
Mia's clinical, dispassionate state does ease off in the form of largely mundane memories—some of which contain snippets of visceral emotion that readers may be able to cling to. Through her disembodied eyes we spend at least half of the time following her voyeuristic journey as she watches herself, watches her grieving friends and extended family, and watches them watching over her unresponsive body. For the situation being so dire, the pacing is almost meandering and the tension remains remarkably low.
There's a bit of forced-feeling excitement for a moment when Mia's rocker boyfriend decides to bypass working with Mia's family to get in to see her and instead concocts an overly-elaborate attention-needy plan to storm the ICU in a manner that could only result in his detention, if not arrest. At which point, I lost all hope and interest in said boyfriend. (Sorry, I just couldn't buy the “grand romantic gesture” thing. That was a last resort move, but for some reason, he jumped straight to the needlessly extreme approach without first exhausting other options.)
When this reader initially noticed If I Stay, it was being billed as something fans of The Twilight Series shouldn't miss. I haven't the slightest idea why. Aside from the super-lite paranormal aspect and Pacific Northwest setting, there's almost nothing that could call to mind Stephanie Meyer's books—for better or worse. (Regardless of how you felt about Twilight, this just struck me as a poor marketing tactic.) There was little-to-no worldbuilding (and oddly little philosophizing) to the paranormal element, no struggle with the nature of humanity, no underlying battle between good and evil, no super-attractive super-powered immortal boyfriend... **cough**
I was particularly bothered that story lacks sensuality, while seeming to present teenage sex in a casual, flippant manner that boarders on virgin-shaming. At least the sex is more implied than graphic, but still...
Note: Super-cool parents are, of course, totally supportive of sexy boyfriend sleepovers and moderate underage drinking. Because they're just that cool.
The main saving grace, for this reader, was the almost spiritual connection the main character had to the cello. Only when her cello-playing was involved did the story begin to feel engaging and believable. While there was a huge emphasis on music and its binding influence on all of the people in Mia's life—in one way or another—none felt as though their relationship was ever close to being as authentic as Mia's. She describes her experiences playing the cello in a way that struck a more poignant chord than the plot itself.
Side note: I'm vaguely disappointed that, with all of the punk and indie music references being thrown about in this book, one obvious song was never tapped for it's fitting irony: Should I Stay or Should I Go, by The Clash.
Okay, maybe that would have been a little...wrong. >.