Mia's main choice in the book is whether or not to die or to stay alive. What will life be like if she stays? She'll have to live without her parents and her beloved younger brother, which is sad, but she also has a promising college career and dozens of supportive friends and family members to help her. It doesn't seem like a tough decision to make.
But the title might have another meaning. If Mia decides to stay in the realm of the living, she has another "if I stay" choice: should she stay with Adam? It would mean giving up her opportunity to go to Juilliard. We have a feeling—and not just because we read the sequel—that she's going to choose not to stay… with Adam, at least.
But maybe the sequel will solve that problem, too. No spoilers here.
The book is called If I Stay, and everyone wants Mia to stay, including Adam, who explicitly says "Stay" (17.8) at Mia's bedside. Perhaps his band should cover the classic Lisa Loeb hit?
Lisa Loeb would be a little too on point, so instead, Adam plays a Yo-Yo Ma track called "Andante con Moto e Poco Rubato," which is a movement from a classical piece. He also squeezes Mia's hand, but it's clearly Yo-Yo Ma who brings Mia back to life.
The book ends with Mia waking up, and we don't even get to see how she reacts. Will she stay with Adam, or will she go to Juilliard? Will she tell people about her out-of-body experience? Will Nurse Ramirez have time to fix her manicure?
All these burning questions are left unanswered, forcing us to read the sequel.
Even if the book didn't explicitly say that Mia was airlifted to a hospital in Portland, which it does, with all the references to hipsters, vegans, and vintage clothing stores, you'd know it was Portland. A girl's family is killed, she's in a coma, and dozens of vegan hipsters in vintage clothes hold vigil. It's like the saddest episode of Portlandia ever.
The book's main conflict comes from the fact that Mia is in a hospital. A horrible car accident like this can happen anywhere, at any time. Mia says, "The ICU is like [a casino]. You can't tell what time of day it is or how much time has passed" (8.2). Which is a lie, because each chapter heading tells the exact time of day. Mia knows precisely how much time has passed. But we'll make the metaphor work by saying that being in the ICU is a gamble, and the stakes are literally life and death.
Being in the hospital provides the only conflict in the present-time portion of the book: Adam cannot see Mia because of hospital policy. This leads to him come up with a diversion. He gets a punk singer to distract the hospital staff so that he can rush in and see Mia. This plot point makes being in a hospital feel less scary and more like something from a sitcom.
To think about the setting a little more—we're not sure what year it is. The book was published in 2009, but kids in the waiting room are playing a Game Boy, even though the Nintendo DS came out in 2004. And teen girls fantasize about Brad Pitt. We doubt that many teen girls in 2009 were flocking to see Inglorious Basterds.
Gayle Forman lived in Eugene, Oregon from 1991 to 1996 (prime Brad time), so we imagine the book is set somewhere in that time period. [Source]
Unless you're listening to classic Avril Lavigne—yes, we just put "classic" and "Avril Lavigne" in the same sentence—song lyrics usually aren't complicated. Mia loves music, and she includes many references to musicians, songs, and even lyrics in her narration. Knowing the pop culture references is the most difficult thing about reading this book, because Mia's voice is as easy to understand as your average pop song. And if you don't know what songs she's talking about, there's always YouTube to help you jam out to her favorite tunes to enhance your reading experience.
Mia loves the cello. She loves playing the cello more than she loves her family, her friends, or her boyfriend. To her, the cello is "almost human" (1.32), and if she plays it right, "it would tell you its secrets" (1.32). She repeats this sentiment later, saying that "there is something so human and expressive about it" (4.49).
Mia's reverence for the cello shows us how important music is in her life. It isn't a visit from her best friend, her boyfriend, or her grandparents that causes her to regain consciousness. It's cello music, the soundtrack of her life.
There are positives and negatives to this. On the positive side, this is Mia's passion, and the cello represents for Mia life lived to its fullest and on her own terms. On the negative side, there's a sense that the cello is more "human" to Mia than the actual humans in her life, Adam kind of excepted; it's like Mia doesn't process the fact that others care about her, because she's so wrapped up in herself. Maybe coming of age for Mia will be learning to integrate both aspects of her life.
Mia in uncomfortable in her own skin. Or maybe in this case we should say that she's uncomfortable in her own hair. Her parents and little brother have blonde hair, but Mia is a brunette. This is genetically improbabl, and it makes Mia feel like a square in a family of circles, or whatever shape represents fun. A rhombus, perhaps?
But when Mia dons a blonde wig for Halloween, it's "the first time I actually looked like any of my immediate family" (9.60). The wig allows her to pretend to be someone else: someone who fits in, even though brunette Mia is hardly an outcast. As a blonde, Mia cuts loose, has a wonderful time, and thinks Adam will like her more (because her blonde family is so gosh-darn cool, after all)—but he tells her she's cool just the way she is, even if her hair is a boring brown.
However, the wig becomes a synthetic spirit animal to Mia. She says that whenever she doubts Adam's feelings for her, she thinks about the wig, and it helps her with her insecurity. Why does pretending to be someone else help Mia be more secure in herself?
Mia's family likes coffee, and the blacker the better. She decides that this is the cool way to drink coffee. According to her, there are "people who drank plain coffee and people who drank gussied-up caffeine drinks like the mint-chip lattes Kim was so fond of" (10.41).
That's a burn, Kim.
Maybe one of the reasons Mia feels she can leave Kim behind is that Kim just isn't cool enough.
In any case, this is the kind of black-and-white logic Mia applies to coolness. You're either cool or you aren't, but the criteria are kind of random. Maybe that's one of the reasons why Mia is so confused about her identity—she hasn't learned to think outside of these categories.