Review of “If I Stay” and “Where She Went” by Gayle Forman

Why both books in one review?

Reason One: Like many sequels, Where She Went is totally spoilery for If I Stay, so it seems unwise to review them separately. What I will do is start with If I Stay, and then I will include a big warning before posting the review for Where She Went.

Note: neither review, read separately, has book ending spoilers! Thus, if you would like to, feel free to read the Evaluation Section under each review.

Reason Two: And now for something that doesn’t often happen: book two, in my opinion, is actually better than book one, which is already a book you will want to read. Usually it goes the other way around. But you really ought not read book two without book one, so get them both!

Review of Book One:

If I Stay

Seventeen-year-old Mia is not the stereotypical alienated teen. She is very close to her family, and loves to hang out with them. But when they take advantage of a snow day to go for a car trip, they end up in a catastrophic accident. Mia survives – just barely – and is some kind of limbo, detached from her comatose body and able to watch the hospital proceedings around her.

It becomes clear to Mia that she must decide whether to “stay” (and continue to live) or to “go” and die along with her family. (But would she be with them in some sort of an afterlife? She doesn’t know! And that’s partly what makes it so difficult.) It’s an incredibly hard choice for her; she knows life will be awful with her family dead:

“What would it feel like to wake up an orphan? To never smell Dad smoke a pipe? To never stand next to Mom quietly talking as we do the dishes? To never read Teddy another chapter of Harry Potter? To stay without them? I’m not sure this is a world I belong in anymore. I’m not sure that I want to wake up.”

And yet she knows her family would want her to carry on. To help her make the decision, she reminisces about her life, and thus we get to know her loving if unconventional family, and her adoring boyfriend Adam.

Adam plays rock guitar and is in a popular band, while Mia has played classical cello since she was eight years old. (In school they were known as “Groovy and the Geek.”) Adam loves Mia’s dedication and devotion to the cello. He understands that if anything will convince her to stay, it will be her beloved music and the promise of studying at Julliard. But the arguments for her “going” are compelling as well…

Evaluation: If I Stay is very reminiscent of Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver. I think Oliver does a better job in terms of emotional impact, but If I Stay isn’t really that far behind. Moreover, the characters in If I Stay are likable from the beginning (in fact, they are almost too perfect) , whereas in Before I Fall they need to “grow” a bit; a journey that some readers did not feel inspired to take. Oliver’s prose is less simplistic, but Forman’s, which reminded me a bit of Jacqueline Woodson’s, still packs a punch.

Rating: 4/5

STOP! DO NOT CONTINUE WITH THE REVIEW FOR WHERE SHE WENT IF YOU HAVE NOT YET READ IF I STAY, BECAUSE ANY DISCUSSION OF WHERE SHE WENT WILL BE A SPOILER FOR THE FIRST BOOK!!!!

[NEVERTHELESS, ALTHOUGH BOOK 2 SPOILS BOOK 1, THERE ARE NO SPOILERS (OTHERWISE) IN THE REVIEW OF BOOK 2, and you can safely read the Evaluation.]

(Note I’m going to these extremes because I really recommend reading these two!)

Review of Book Two:

Where She Went

Where She Went is told from the point of view of Adam, Mia’s boyfriend in the first book. In If I Stay, Mia miraculously survived a car crash that killed the rest of her family. Her decision to stay alive was made after hearing Adam beg her to stay, vowing to Mia that he would even leave her if it meant she would live.

Where She Went begins three years after that moment. Adam is now twenty-one and a famous rock artist, living with a vapid movie star out in LA. It turns out that when Mia left Oregon for Julliard, she inexplicably dumped Adam without a word of explanation. His searing pain ironically is what propelled him to fame, because of the intensely emotional lyrics of the album he wrote after she left him.

But he has never stopped loving Mia and thinking about her, and hates his life. He smokes and takes anxiety pills, and quarrels with everyone around him. And mourns, endlessly. The love he had for music is gone.

On a band tour layover in New York, he walks by Carnegie Hall, and sees that Mia is performing solo there that night. He manages to get a ticket and is shocked when afterwards, an usher approaches and tells him that Mia “would like you to come backstage.” She asks him to accompany her on an impromptu walking tour of New York City, since she has to leave shortly for a concert tour. But they only “chit chat” and avoid any issues of importance. Adam reminisces about the last trip he was on with Mia, a camping trip, that he considers “the best trip of my life:”

“Whenever I remember it, I just picture our tent, a little ship glowing in the night, the sounds of Mia’s and my whispers escaping like musical notes, floating out on a moonlit sea.”

But those times are long gone. Finally, when it’s almost morning, and they are standing on the Brooklyn Bridge overlooking the city, Adam knows it is almost time to leave her, and wants to smoke. Mia castigates him, saying:

“Quitting’s not hard. Deciding to quit is hard. Once you make that mental leap, the rest is easy.”

This rips open Adam’s heart, and he blurts out:

Really? Was that how you quit me?”

And then finally, they are talking. And finally, Mia tells him why she left him.

Evaluation: If this book doesn’t touch you, you might consider redefining yourself as a stone. This book has much more nuance, character development, and more sophisticated writing than the first book. And the rollercoaster of emotions has more ups and downs. On the other hand, the first book has a more interesting premise. In short, they are both definitely worth reading.

Rating: 4.2/5

If I Stay published by Dutton Books for Young Readers, 2009

Where She Went published by Dutton Books for Young Readers, 2011

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18 Responses to Review of “If I Stay” and “Where She Went” by Gayle Forman

  1. BermudaOnion says:

    Somehow I own Where She Went and yet don’t own If I Stay. It sounds like I need to buy and read If I Stay before I read Where She Went. I hope all of that makes sense!

  2. zibilee says:

    I only read the evaluation sections for each review, as I really want to read these books, and they have already been slightly spoiled for me already. I am going to be reading Before I Fall for book club this month, and I have to say that I am really rather looking forward to it. I have heard some really amazing things about that book. These books are also at the top of my list!

  3. Amy says:

    I read only the Evaluation part of your review and, that alone, hooked me! I haven’t read many reviews of these books and now I’m quite happy about that since I prefer not to know too much about books I really want to read. Your evaluations tell me just enough to know that I want to read these books, particularly Where She Went which sounds very compelling and beautifully written.

  4. I guess I am a stone 🙂 I really enjoyed If I Stay, it had me crying like a baby. I was disappointed in Where She Went. I guess I just wouldn’t have made the same choice Mia made.

    I thought Before I Fall was just okay…

    • Annie says:

      Same here. I thought If I Stay was beautiful and very touching. Where She Went felt more like an unnecessary little quip that was strung out and attached needlessly to the first book.

  5. Margot says:

    I read both reviews and both evaluations and I still want to read these books. The Library Journal recommends them for ninth grade and up, but my seventh grade granddaughter and I were thinking about reading them together. She’s a mature reader. What do you think?

    • I don’t recall much “explicit” in the books and anyway, I think today’s seventh graders must be pretty sophisticated! I think these would make fantastic books to read for a teen WITH someone to discuss the issues, like about what happens when you die, and what makes life worth living, that kind of stuff.

  6. I really enjoyed If I Stay, so I am glad to hear that you liked the second book better. That means I will probably love it!

    • Ironically, given the subject matters, the second book is “darker,” and I think because of that some reviews I’ve seen prefer the first book. But I loved the more-layered characterization of the second.

  7. Jenners says:

    I just saw this author featured in my alumni magazines for the University of Oregon. I was thinking of checking out her books because she is a “Fighting Duck” like me!

  8. celawerd says:

    These both sound like great books. I had not heard of them before. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Serena says:

    I didn’t want to read the spoilers, so I just read the evaluation…which by the way is very blunt. I must be a stone if these books don’t impact me in some way?! These must be good if not great books.

  10. I wasn’t sure about these books when I first started seeing them. But now I think I need to read them. They sound so good.

  11. I’m hooked just by looking at the covers… going to wander over to Amazon and see if I can add these to my Kindle. It’s been a while since I read some YA and it would make a welcome change.

  12. Ti says:

    I am in the final pages of If I Stay now. I have some quibbles with it, so I put it down and now don’t feel like finishing it. So… I didn’t read your review yet. I have to finish it soon though because it’s due!

  13. I agree with your reviews – I read If I Stay with my book club…. I ventured into Where She Went on my own and at first did not like all the background “guy stuff” of Adam and what has happened since Mia has left…
    and then – (much like the review book I am putting up today) it exploded and I could not get enough. Awesome.

  14. stacybuckeye says:

    I really liked If I Stay but didn’t really think I needed to read the sequel. Until now! Thanks for making me add yet another book to my wish list!

  15. Vasilly says:

    I’ve been a little bit on the fence about reading If I Stay but if you gave it four out of five stars, maybe I should put it on my tbr list. 🙂

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