Saturday, June 12, 2010

To stay or not to stay is sometimes a question

Gayle Forman's IF I STAY confronts a question many people would rather avoid. How do you go forward after it seems you've lost everything, when despair and grief mute your world?

I just finished reading this slim YA novel about a budding teenage cellist named Mia. I felt as if it ended abruptly. I would have liked a few more moments of what her decision means, because the questions are well drawn. How much can we suffer? When do we step out of "I" into "us" and what role do family and friends play in our choices? Are we truly alone if our lives and memories are filled with others?

I was intrigued with how the book was structured, because it breaks rules. The first line is an odd sort of all-knowing comment that is followed by first-person present tense. Then the book switches between present and past tense. As writers, we're told to avoid backstory, and, yet, in this story it's integral.

Warning: spoilers ahead in this paragraph. Since Mia is in a coma but is lucid, she weaves past events into the present, trying to make sense of what has happened to her life. I was aware that I was reading backstory, but it felt like a natural process of sorting out her life, appreciating people and experiences while she puts that into context with her current condition. And the story got richer with those layers. The reader is on a journey of discovery with her. But we are oddly detached, as though Mia is looking through a lens from a distance and feeling little emotion. I was okay with that since she is in this altered mental state, but the ending would have more impact if Mia switched from telling us to showing us her loss and pain. This was the moment when the floodgates could be opened and the life raft of love and hope was within reach.

Still, I recommend this book for raising important questions and for taking risks by being told from the viewpoint of a girl in a coma. Writing and life are about risks--if you never take any, nothing happens. You may as well be comatose.

I'm going to segue to Abby Sunderland for a moment. I was so worried for the 16-year-old sailor the night it was announced that her emergency signals had been activated. I pictured her alone in her crippled sailboat in 30-foot waves. Obviously, my panic did her no good, but her experience as a sailor and her state-of-the-art equipment did. And then there was her family and the volunteers who set to work to get her rescued. I don't wish to discuss whether she should have been out there or who pays for rescues or any of that. Instead, I'm interested in her battle to survive and the support of her family, friends, volunteers and the many people who filled her blog comments with prayers and well wishes.

Her story is far different than IF I STAY but also alike in how we're all faced with decisions and risks and must reach inside ourselves for the will to survive and how that inner strength is bolstered by the support of others.


So, it seems appropriate as I muse on what helps us make it through the trials and traumas of life that Liza Carens Salerno gave me this Journey Support Award. Thank you, Liza for being one of the people I've met online who make the writing and blogging adventure such a joy.

In fact, I pass this award on to all the bloggers who follow my musings here and/or have left me wonderful comments. I love having you with me on this journey!


storyqueen said...

I had not yet heard that they rescued Abby. Thank God!! It is fascinating to think about the battle to stay or not stay that goes on in the minds of those on the edge.

I suppose it's just a more intense form of the little choices we make everyday that somehow have enormous impacts on our future....even if we don't realize it at the time.

Great post!

Blog looks spiffy!


Laurel Garver said...

I also had mixed feelings about the narrative techniques and emotional distance in this story. But the rules breaking of running past and present story lines did open my mind to intriguing new possibilities in my own work. I'm eager to see how Forman's work matures over time, as there was so, so much to admire in this book.

Stephanie Thornton said...

I was just talking to my husband about risk-taking. It's one of the hardest parts of life- I prefer to avoid drama at all costs. And taking risks- like querying- entails obvious drama.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Shelley: I was enormously relieved when she was rescued. As much as I write about the sea, I would never want to be in waves that size.
Thanks on the blog redesign. I played around with Blogger's new offerings. I like to keep the design simple because I post a lot of my own photographs.

Laurel: Yes, I agree with you. I admired much about it but stumbled on a few things. It was gutsy, though, to tackle that viewpoint.

Stephanie: I'm not a huge risk-taker, but my daughter is. Her view has always been that it's better to try and fail than to regret not trying.

Sherrie Petersen said...

I like the new look of your blog!

I haven't read this book but I do believe in taking risks. Sometimes it stresses me out big time, but I'm always happier when I'm challenging myself beyond my comfort zone.

Carolina M. Valdez Schneider said...

Oh, LOVE the new look. It's fabulous and so uber professional! :D

I haven't read this one, but it sounds really good. For one, I love books that break all the rules and take major risks. It seems to pose some great questions as well, although I can't really respond to the meat of the story as I skipped the spoilers part so I can read the book. That said, I think I'll pick it up. Thanks for the mention of it!

Melissa Hurst said...

I can't wait to read this book. I love anything that break the rules of what we're "supposed" to do:)

Sybel said...

I often complain that today's parents won't let their children take enough risks, but now that my girls are nearing high school graduation, I find myself gritting my teeth. Remember the piece Susan Straight wrote for the LA Times magazine several years ago about over-protective parents? Great cover illustration of a baby in a high chair smothered in bubble wrap. Too many parents treat their children like that.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Sherrie: Thanks! Life is more immediate, for sure, when we push our comfort level.

Carol: Oooo, uber-professional, I like the sound of that.
It's definitely interesting the way she chose to tell the story.

Melissa: We must be a bunch of rule-challengers. Hope you enjoy. ;)

Hi Sybel! So nice to see you here. I agree that children are over-protected these days. I think some of them must have trouble discovering who they are or what they are capable of.

Claire Dawn said...

Liking the new blog face.

I've heard good things about this book. Might have to give it a looky!

VR Barkowski said...

Your review is so intriguing, I'm tempted. Like Carol, I appreciate books that break the "rules." In fact, there should be no rules, only guidelines. Too many fledgling writers are stifled by the barrage of dos and don'ts and end up with their voice and creativity buried.

On a totally separate note, love the new blog design! Simple, clean and sophisticated.

Janet Johnson said...

I must be living in a bubble . . . I hadn't heard Abby's story. Sounds amazing!

And wow, If I Stay sounds fascinating. Thanks for the review!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Hi, Claire, and thanks!

Viva: Guidelines, yes! I get stubborn when there's too many rules, anyway. The thing about little kids is they let their imaginations fly without knowing what isn't "allowed."
Oooo, and thanks for "sophisticated." I'll take that!

Janet: Oh, my,yes, you must not have watched news or heard pundits carry on about why she shouldn't sail the world alone. But I have always been fascinated by people who have such courage. The girl has a blog, if you're interested.

Unknown said...

I enjoyed the book, but I know what you mean about the emotions near the end. Gayle took a brave chance doing that, though I can see why it was done the way it was.

I love how you tied those three topics together. Very clever. :)

Amber Murphy said...

I, too, was intrigued by some of the choices Forman made in IF I STAY, and I really appreciated your honest review of the work.

Sometimes it makes me wonder if we should be breaking the same kind of rules, in different ways... maybe that is what it takes!

Anonymous said...

Very interesting review and it is awesome how you connected it to the Abby Sunderland incident.

This book has caught my interest and it'll be on my TBR list, which has a lot of books on it...*sigh*

Anyway, I look forward to reading how Gayle,the author, breaks the rules of writing and it will be interesting to see how Gayle conveys past and present events in a comatose teenager's mind.

Awesome post and write on, Tricia.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Stina: It sure was brave. The idea of POV from someone in a coma is daunting. (Thanks, that's how my mind works, I guess.)

Hi Amber: It's always tricky breaking rules. It can work like a charm or blow up. But I think it's worth trying.

Vatche: Thanks for that. I hope you are intrigued by it, too. said...

I agree with V.R. Barkowski. Writers need to be open to other styles. The problem with forumula rules is that they change depending on what's "in."

When I started writing, dialogue was looked down on as "low" writing. Description was considered "good" writing. You were supposed to write in third person all knowing author at all times. Then you were supposed to write in first person at all times. Then in deep third. I have no idea what's "in" now.

As a singer I know that an alto isn't going to become a soprano no matter how much training she gets. You have to sing the song the way you were meant to sing it. Trying to be a copy of something that's not you won't get you anywhere. It will just waste your time.

Stories need to be told in their own way too. And writers have to tell them in the way that makes sense to them and their talents. There's plenty of room in the world for more than one kind of writing, just like there's room for opera and rock. And breaking the rules is usually how you get to a new style.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Mary Anne: "Sing the song the way you were meant to sing it." I love that. Good thought to remember.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...
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