Books about death and dying are particularly hard to review. The way we react to them is so deeply personal that I'm skeptical about the actual value of my (or anyone's) review of the work to other readers. When we read, we don't come to the book with a clean slate--we come to it with years of experiences, friendships, and memories that provide us with a vantage point from which to view the story. And if you have an awful tendency toward existentialism, like I do, these books only become more emotional as you evaluate your own life,choices, and relationships along with the protagonist.
I spent two years of my life moving around the US doing service projects, and most of that time I lived in the gulf after Hurricane Katrina. Living in a tent city and gutting houses for months in what basically felt like a post-apocalyptic world was life-changing for me, but the absolute devastation of the area wasn't what did me in, it was the people. Most of the people whose homes we gutted had not returned from evacuation yet. Their homes had been under 10-12 feet of water for two weeks. My point is this: we threw out almost all of their belongings. Barely anything was salvageable--at the most, we found a few pictures or some of their silver or china. I cannot imagine what it was like for those families. Is it better to come back to a nightmare or to come back to an empty, clean slate from which to start again I still don't know. But I realized, after speaking to so many residents, that most of their stuff didn't matter to them. They had their lives. Their family. Their connections to other people. I know it sounds cliche, but I feel like it is something that a lot of us tend to forget. Even when it feels like all is lost, there is always something there to hold on to. (view spoiler)[When Kim told Mia her long story of the day and ended it with, "You still have a family," I lost it. (hide spoiler)]
Mia, the protagonist of If I Stay is in the intensive care unit after a horrible car accident. While she is in a comatose state, some part of her (her soul) is able to see everything that is going on outside of her body. I found it fascinating--so often with an outside watcher, we see a person hovering over their funeral or watching to see what happens afterward. In Mia's case, we were able to follow along with her while she makes her decision to stay or go. I wasn't sure what Mia's choice was going to be, even to the last second, and I appreciated that fact--Gayle Forman gets it. The relationships between the characters felt so real to me, especially because a lot of my immediately family are doctors and nurses so I've spent a lot of time in hospitals.
I read an article today about the decline of the "book review." The author was discussing the extent to which people used to depend on critical and objective book reviews for suggestions of what to read and how the number of literary critics has severely decreased. (actual literary critics, not just reviewers)It got me thinking about what I actually look for in a book review. What makes me want to read it Though I definitely enjoy the NYT Book Review, I am much more likely to buy a book that my friends recommend, on Goodreads or in real life. Give me a subjective book review about what a book made you feel and I am all over it. If you are the same way, you should know: This book made me feel optimistic for the future at a time when I have been feeling completely lost, so for that, it is getting 5 stars.
As an aside, I'd just like to add that this book was fantastic in audio format. Once in awhile, cello music played in the background and it was lovely to hear it considering Mia was an amazing cellist. Also, having a person actually read me the lyrics to Mia's father's song and to hear Adam say his speech to her was beautiful. I'd definitely recommend this book in audio format.