Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Where Oh Where Can My Baby Be?*

I’ve been a little skittish around cars for the past few days. This is not a surprise, considering I’ve been immersed in If I Stay by Gayle Forman and Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver. Both books feature main characters who hover between life and death after a car crash. (Also, both covers have giant lying-down girl heads.)

If I Stay takes place over the course of one day, in which Mia goes from a quiet serious cellist with a loving family, waiting on an admissions decision from Julliard, to an out-of-body spirit, deciding whether she will stay alive or die. As Mia’s body lies in the ICU, her first-person narration takes us to important moments in her life, including the first time she saw a cello, the first time she met her best friend, and the first time she kissed her boyfriend. Despite its subject, If I Stay is never maudlin or overdramatic. It becomes a celebration of every part of life, the pain as well as the pleasure. And because Mia and her family are such specifically drawn wonderful individuals (mom and dad are ex-punk rockers), this bittersweet celebration is felt even more strongly by the reader.

If I Stay teaches its main character the importance of life, but Before I Fall teaches its main character what the important things are in life. When we first meet Sam, she is popular and shallow, adhering strictly to her perception of the social rules (i.e., don’t talk to girls that the mob has decided are slutty, don’t order roast beef in the cafeteria, don’t stop your friends when they call a fragile-looking girl a psycho). But after she is killed in a car crash, Sam is forced to live out her last day, over and over, Groundhog Day–style. Sam’s journey to enlightened teen is wonderfully nuanced. Rather than simply treating Sam’s friends as villains, they are recognized as flawed people who, nevertheless, love each other very much. As Sam repeats the day of her death, she is able to gain wisdom about her life that was and to see what really mattered and what was just self-imposed unhappiness. The book is almost like a loving letter from an adult to her teenaged self, patiently explaining the things she knows now that she wishes she knew then.

If I Stay and Before I Fall are both wonderful stories, and both reaffirm the kinds of thoughts about life that seem simple but are actually so profound that you have to think them over and over again, realizing anew each time how bone-deep true they are. Life is beautiful and horrible in equal measure. The small mistakes that seem to matter so much in the moment are not so important in the long run. Cars are really dangerous.

*The title of this post is a reference to the song Last Kiss, a song about a car crash that is truly bizarre when you contrast its tragic lyrics with its upbeat sound. Pearl Jam later covered this song (semi-ironically?), and I felt triumphant that I already knew it and angry that now everyone would think I only knew it because of Pearl Jam.

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