It started with Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project. She loved reading children's books and wondered if other adults did too. Very much, in fact. The Wall Street Journal reports that Rubin now has three Kidlit groups in New York, and many of the members are extremely respectable members of the publishing community who really seem to get off on Young Adult (YA) fiction.
So I thought I'd have what they're having.
I chose If I Stay, published in 2009, mostly because it is a monster success -- already available in 30 languages, sold to Hollywood. And on its website, almost 1,900 readers have commented on Gayle Forman's genius and the book's gut-wrenching, life-changing appeal.
I rolled through 230 big-print, nicely spaced pages in a few hours. The novel pressed every emotional button I'm aware of. At the end, I was a mess -- limp, to be sure, but also thrilled, energized, renewed.
Those book groups -- when it comes to If I Stay, at least -- are not wrong.
How powerful is this story? Here's the author on its genesis:
Once upon a time, there was a family: a mom, a dad, a little boy like Teddy and another little boy, just a baby. And once upon a time, there was a snow day. And a drive in a car. And a mysterious car accident. And an unfathomable tragedy.
Once upon a time, one of those family members held on a little longer, though by the time the news reached me, all the way across the country in New York City, the devastation was complete. The whole family had died. But that little boy's act of tenacity, followed by his surrender, it haunted me. Did that one little boy know what had happened to the rest of his family? Did he choose to go with them?
It was out of the fog of that persistent question that one day, almost seven years after the fact, this total stranger popped into my consciousness. Her name was Mia. She was 17 years old. And a cello player. And she had no relation whatsoever to the people I knew. But the minute I met her I knew she was going to take me on a journey, to answer that question that had been living in me for years: What would you do if you had to choose?
I know what you're thinking. I thought it too: This is a set-up -- Forman has produced a weepie that exploits the constellation of teenage doubts that stop afflicting most of us as soon as we have to earn a paycheck.
Gayle Forman creates shockingly real characters. A father who once played guitar in a popular Oregon band, but who traded leather jackets for tweed sport coats when he became an English teacher. A mother who can't cook. A boy who drinks decaf. And Mia, who dreams of getting into Julliard and, at the same time, dreads it because her musician boyfriend really is her first true love.
As for the violence of the car crash -- there is none. One minute the family is driving along a snowy, two-lane highway, listening to Beethoven's "Cello Concerto No. 3" on public radio, and then there's a line space, and we read: "You wouldn't expect the radio to work afterward. But it does."
Dad dead. Mom dead. Brother missing. And Mia in disbelief -- is she there, or not? She pinches her wrist, as hard as she can. But she feels nothing.
"Am I dead?" she wonders.
She should be. Her leg's been pared down to the bone. But she's not in agony. Maybe she's alive. Then why isn't she crying?
At the hospital, surgeons remove her spleen, insert a tube to drain a collapsed lung. And then they wait to see if Mia will wake up.
If I Stay is not a medical drama. It's bigger. We go back, in alternating chapters, to the life Mia had -- a wonderfully secure and interesting life, surrounded and supported by smart, quirky people. A poetic, romantic life, too -- the first time Mia and her boyfriend take off their shirts, he plays her like a guitar and she treats his chest as if it were her cello.
All of it is in the service of one looming moment:
If I stay. If I live. It's up to me.
All this talk about medically induced comas is just doctor talk. It's not up to the doctors. It's not up to the absentee angels. It's not even up to God who, if He exists, is nowhere around right now. It's up to me.
That's page 89.
What follows will take you on an emotional ride. Relatives, friends, the boyfriend -- all make their way to Mia's hospital bed, and all have something smart and wrenching and surprising to say. And all of it serves the question, which seems more and more legitimate as we learn about Mia's life.
No spoilers here. But a suggestion: If you have teenagers, hide If I Stay while you read it. Because if they get their hands on this book, you will never see it again.
When our daughter is old enough, I'm going to encourage her to read this book.
To read an excerpt, click here.
Bonus: Gayle Forman talks about music, Oregon and more.
Cross-posted from HeadButler.com.