When I took my daughters to see The Fault in Our Stars, we saw the preview for the upcoming film, If I Stay, based on the book by Gayle Forman. And while I was hoping the TFIOS would fulfill our rip-your-heart-out movie quota for the year , I knew as soon as this preview started that there was to be yet another traumatic movie going experience in our future. And I’ll admit I was intrigued too.
Of course I had to read the book. One, because I know my girls will want to read it. And two, because I cannot resist the opportunity to feel superior to all the people in the theater who have not read the book.
If I Stay is the story of Mia Hall, a classical cellist and the daughter of former punk rock parents. From the beginning of the novel , we see that Mia’s is a happy, close-knit family. Her relationship with her parents is easy and laid back, and she adores her nine year old brother Teddy. When her school calls a snow day, the entire family decides to take advantage of the day off and enjoy a family outing. Unfortunately, the outing turns tragic when their car is hit by an oncoming truck.
It takes Mia a few minutes to realize what has happened. Her parents are dead. She and Teddy are horribly injured. And she is watching the entire scene unfold from outside her own body. This is of course confusing to Mia. How can she be lying in a hospital bed unconscious and at the same time fully aware of what is going on around her? It is in this state that Mia realizes that the decision to live or to die is up to her. The chapters that follow alternate from Mia watching what is happening at the hospital to flashbacks of her life before the accident.
In these flashbacks we learn about Mia’s life. Her parents are cool – permissive yes, but loving and devoted to their children. This is a refreshing change from so many YA novels in which the parents are detached, selfish, clueless and more messed up than any teenager, Still, some parents of teenage readers might want to discuss the Hall’s lax parenting style. For example Mia’s parents seem to be fine with her sexual encounters in her upstairs bedroom. And when Mia gets her first boyfriend, her mother is quick to offer to take her to Planned Parenthood and to give her money for condoms.
But the real story of Mia and her parents is their deep love for each other. In fact, their deaths are the main reason Mia considers giving up the struggle to live. She can’t imagine a life without the family she loves. But there are other people Mia loves too. Her best friend Kim comes to the hospital and reminds comatose Mia that she still has a lot of people left who love her and want her to stay – aunts, uncles, cousins. There is a particularly moving passage in which Mia’s grandfather talks to Mia about her decision to live or die.
And of course there is Adam, Mia’s boyfriend. Her flashbacks detail their romance, one her mother describes as real but inconvenient at 17. Adam is the lead singer in a punk rock band. In a lot of ways, he is more like Mia’s parents than she is. Her impending admission to Julliard and his rising singing career are a source of difficulty for the young couple. As far as teenage romance novels go, the relationship between Mia and Adam is in some ways easier to take than others. It is more mature, less desperate. One version of the novel’s cover (see above) contains a review stating this story will appeal to TWILIGHT fans. Perhaps, but unlike Bella Swan, Mia is accomplished and self-possessed. She does suffer from the same unfortunate “why me” response when Adam first notices her, but her entire existence and self-worth are not dependent on him. If that were true, his love would make her decision about staying or leaving easy. But it isn’t. In fact in spite of his love, the thought of staying behind without her parents is almost unbearable for Mia. Bella Swan, on the other hand, was willing to ditch her parents in a heartbeat to follow Edward into immortality. So yes, Mia is a much stronger character than Bella, but I’m still waiting for the YA novel in which the girls knows how awesome she is before the boy falls in love with her.
The thing that is conspicuously absent from this novel is Mia’s concern for what will happen, where she’ll go, if she decides to die. At one point she wonders if death will be just like a deep sleep, but other than that she spends little time contemplating eternity – Heaven, Hell, judgement, abyss, God, or an afterlife. Hers is not a religious family, but they are not atheists, and they do sometimes go to church. Her grandmother’s beliefs about the afterlife – people becoming angels in the form of an animals – crosses her mind, but in general, Mia seems more concerned about what living will be like than what being dead will be like. This novel is not anti-religion or void of spirituality. Rather, these things are only alluded to and not explored. Perhaps this type of temporal thinking is realistically typical for a 17 year old. But still, in a novel that tackles the subject of choosing life or death, one would hope the main character might wrestle with these questions. However, even though Mia doesn’t, the reader of If I Stay certainly might be inspired to do so.
Yes. Mia’s mother in particular is a big cusser – the F word included.
There is a scene that takes place in Mia’s bedroom that is not graphic (in fact it’s not entirely clear how far they go), but it is very sensual. There are also references to making out and to Adam sleeping over. Still, Mia and Adam’s sexual relationship is not a major part of the novel or even of their relationship.
Mia’s grandmother does believe that some of her relatives have returned in the form of animals, but Mia does not seem to take this too seriously.
None. We do not get any details of the accident; however, Mia does describe how her parents look lying dead in the snow. Very sensitive readers might find this disturbing.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. Do you think Mia’s relationship with her parents might be different if they were less permissive? Less cool?
2. Do you agree with Mia’s mother that sometimes you can fall truly in love too soon?
3. Mia doesn’t give a great deal of thought to the afterlife. Do you think this is realistic or do you think someone facing her own death would be more apt to consider the afterlife?
4. What is Mia’s relationship like with her brother, Teddy? Why do they share the bond that they do?
5. Do you think people in a situation like Mia’s can will themselves to live or to die?
6. Do you think people in a coma can hear people talking to them?
7. Like Bella in Twilight, Mia can’t quite believe that Adam really likes her. She feels unworthy. Do you think it is common for girls to base their worth on the boys who like them? Do you think that Mia is ultimately a stronger character than Bella?
QUOTES FROM THE NOVEL
“And even though they don’t know who we are or what has happened, they pray for us. I can feel them praying.”
“But the you who you are tonight is the same you I was in love with yesterday, the same you I’ll be in love with tomorrow…Hell, you’re the punkest girl I know no matter who you listen to or what you wear.”
“I shouldn’t have to care. I shouldn’t have to work this hard. I realize now that dying is easy. Living is hard.”
“Sometimes you make your choices in life. Sometimes your choices make you.”
“…seventeen is an inconvenient time to be in love.”
“Either way you win. And either way you lose. What can I tell you? Love’s a bitch.” (Mia’s mom)
“I’ll let you go. If you stay.” (Adam talking to comatose Mia)
The cover of Eleanor and Park has this review from New York Times bestselling author Gayle Forman:
This sexy, tender romance thrums with punk rock and true love. Readers will swoon.
Eleanor and Park, set in the 80’s, is the story of two misfit teenagers who share and preference for punk rock and comic books and who fall madly, deeply, and I will admit, tenderly in love. They meet on the school bus. When every other kid on the bus treats Eleanor, a large redhead with a flamboyant style, cruelly, Park begrudgingly offers to let her sit with him. Day after day he tolerates her. Day after day she endures heartless classmates and an almost unimaginably abusive home life. But when Eleanor and Park discover their shared interest in comic books and alternative music, an unlikely friendship slowly blossoms. That friendship eventually turns into love.
Park falls in love with Eleanor for all the right reasons. She is funny, smart, and easy to talk to. Yet, in spite of his love for her, he struggles a little with embarrassment over her misfit ways. Eleanor’s love for Park seems equally un-shallow, but after years of abuse and neglect, she struggles to let herself get close to Park. And while attraction for each other definitely grows out of their friendship and plays a part in their story, Eleanor and Park seem to be really in love – not just in “He’s so cute/ she’s so hot.” teenage love. I like that about this book.
I also was struck by the story of Eleanor’s tragic home life. I felt like this book gave me a deeper insight into what life is like for some kids. For that reason alone, I’m glad I read it. I have renewed empathy for some of my students.
Rowell does a masterful job of describing what it is like to be young and in love. But there is an intensity to Eleanor and Park’s love that, as a parent, I find unsettling. I know that in our culture many people see young love as a right of passage. We have glorified high school romance to the point that most young girls (and guys) feel like their high school years aren’t complete until they find that one special (for now) someone. This is just the kind of books that feeds into that way of thinking.
I think in her review of this book, Gayle Forman is spot on. This book is well-written, full of beautiful and heartbreaking writing. I guess the questions is whether or not you want your teen or preteen daughter to swoon over a sexy, tender, punk rock love story. For mine, I’m going to go with no. There’s a lot of great literature out there that does not perpetuate the myth that young love is what teenage life is all about. I think I’ll encourage my kids in that direction.
Despite her horrible home life, most of the abuse that Eleanor endures is verbal abuse and neglect. Her stepfather’s violence is mostly hinted at.
YES! Almost all of Rowell’s character’s have filthy mouths and no respect for the Lord’s name. That alone might disqualify this book for a lot of families.
Park and Eleanor have a couple of heavy make out sessions, but remarkably they don’t go all the way. However, this is due more to a lack of opportunity than a moral compass. There is also language that is extremely vulgar and sexual in nature.
QUOTES FROM THE BOOK
“Holding Eleanor’s hand was like holding a butterfly. Or a heartbeat. Like holding something complete, and completely alive.”
“I don’t think I even breathe when we’re not together,..”
“Eleanor was right: She never looked nice. She looked like art, and art wasn’t supposed to look nice; it was supposed to make you feel something.”
“You think that holding someone hard will bring them closer. You think that you can hold them so hard that you’ll still feel them, embossed on you, when you pull away…Every time Eleanor pulled away from Park, she felt the gasping loss of him.”
“Or maybe he thought now, he just didn’t recognize all those other girls. The way a computer drive will spit out a disk if it doesn’t recognize the formatting…When he touched Eleanor’s hand, he recognized her. He knew.”
“They talked about the White Album on the way to school, but just as an excuse to stare at each other’s mouths.”
“He’d thought he was over caring about what people thought of him. He’d thought that loving Eleanor proved that. But he kept finding new pockets of shallow inside himself. He kept finding new ways to betray her.”
“He felt himself smile. He felt like something warm spilled in his heart.”