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.
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.
If I Stay published by Dutton Books for Young Readers, 2009
Where She Went published by Dutton Books for Young Readers, 2011