It comes as no surprise that the author of this novel is an award-winning journalist. Gayle Forman's writing is at once concise and emotionally poignant, reading much like a well-researched feature piece for a magazine. The opening of the novel sweeps us off our feet, with a devastating catastrophe of unimaginably tragic proportions. Mia is left in a coma, stranded in time and space, her parents and brother wrenched away from her. But we aren't left isolated in one place. She takes us on a journey through her thoughts and past as she reflects on whether to stay rooted or set herself free.
Reminiscent of The Lovely Bones, this book grapples with the fraught subject of the death of youth. Mia must decide, in her in-between state, whether to live or die. The storyline is heart-wrenching, but restrained enough to really make us contemplate, along with Mia, what the proper course of action should be. This is a challenge for a writer, to balance the emotional turmoil of a situation with enough clarity to keep the reader above-deck, and Forman carries it off beautifully. The mechanism of establishing a temporal framework, setting off each section with the time of night or day, assists in keeping the narrative moving so we don't get lost amid Mia's threading thoughts. The parallels between Mia's current state (in a coma in the hospital) and her past (flashbacks to her life before the accident) are also helpful in understanding the trajectory of the novel.
Mia is a Juilliard-caliber classical cellist, and the power of music is one of the strongest themes in the book. Mia and her boyfriend Adam bond through a shared love of music, and it is also music that ties Mia's family together. Her parents are former musicians who have instilled in her a passion for music early on. In one of the opening scenes, the family's argument over what music selection should play in the car is an accurate representation of the vital role music plays in their lives. Glimpses into the world of musicians breathe life into the narrative. We're taken into mosh pits, rehearsal rooms, onto the concert stage, into a prestigious audition, and Forman does a good job of conveying to all readers, whether music fans or not, the potency of music and its universal ability to forge connections.
Young love provides serious food for thought, establishing this book as mature enough for an adult audience as it is appropriate for young adults. Mia and her boyfriend are truly in love at age seventeen, but the reader is forced to question the consequences of their relationship. Forman prods us to ask, is high-school love true love? Should Mia sacrifice her personal dreams for her love? Should Adam? How does one prioritize at this age - or at any age? The support Mia's mother gives her, in trusting her to make whatever decision works for her, whether it be giving up professional study of music or placing her relationship in jeopardy, is inspiring.
In fact, Mia's relationship with her parents is unique in many ways. Her parents raised her and her younger brother Teddy in a casual and liberated manner, much in line with their own formerly punk rock lifestyle. It's refreshing to read about an alternative family dynamic in a young adult novel, as opposed to one that fills the stereotype of a nuclear American family in a white-picket-fence neighborhood. Mia and Teddy's parents trust them, and treat them nearly as peers, but still provide guidance and comfort in the role of guardians.
As unlikely as it seems, I closed this book without a single criticism or negative comment. I think Forman is a skilled and funny writer who captivates her readers from the first page to the last. The book is tightly constructed and thought-provoking, and will leave you wrestling with Mia's dilemma even after the book's resolution.
This review was originally published in May 2009, and has been updated for the April 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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