Where She Went by Gayle Forman

Genre: Young Adult
Main characters: Adam Wilde, Mia Hall
Time and place: New York, 2011
First sentence:Every morning I wake up and I tell myself this: It’s just one day, one twenty-four-hour period to get yourself through.
Verdict: Three point five stars out of five.

Summary:

Up onstage, in front of eighteen thousand fans, alongside the people who, once upon a time, were part of my family, I felt as alone as I do in [the recording] booth.

It’s been three years since Mia’s accident, two and a half since she has gone off to Juilliard and away from everything in her previous life. So many months that Adam has spent wondering why she has left him without a word, without ever coming back. He’s now a famous rock star, with an even more famous girlfriend, but he feels that his life is getting out of hand. He cannot stand his current band members, he has no patience for the press, and the mere thought of the tour that’s about to begin tires him to no end.

So, this is how it’s become? This is what I’ve become? A walking contradiction? I’m surrounded by people and feel alone. I claim to crave a bit of normalcy but now that I have some, it’s like I don’t know what to do with it, don’t know how to be a normal person anymore.

And then one evening, his last one in the States, he accidentally wanders near Carnegie Hall. There is a concert there, Mia Hall’s. And he cannot resist the temptation of seeing her again, after all this time…

General impression
I’ve read this one in a single sitting too :) That is how impatient I was to see how the book will end. Other than that though I was somewhat disappointed by it. Not that it’s a bad book, it’s quite a good one; my expectations were just so very high. It’s written in the same style as If I Stay (present day scenes alternating remembered ones), it still had an emotional impact on me, and yet… something I cannot pinpoint felt a bit off. Perhaps because I could no longer ‘get’ the characters as perfectly as I could in the first book? Perhaps because every single thing that made the first book stand out for me is now gone?

Characters
In the first book both Adam and Mia were like two innocent children, and it was one of the things I have liked most about them; now that innocence is gone, at least in Adam’s case (the story is narrated by him, so we have lots more details about his past life than Mia’s). Sure, his past years have been rather tame for a rock star, and he does a good job of explaining away all his mistakes — when all is said and done he’s still a decent human being, perhaps even a better one after all his challenges. I very much admired the way he’s been by Mia’s side during her recovery months. I cannot say I did not like him anymore, because he is still likable, and yet there was something missing compared to the previous book. Or maybe it just was a bit harder to have a famous rock star as a hero than an ordinary one (the more things in common I have with a character, the deeper I get into the story, I guess).

In a way I had the same problem — too few things in common — with Mia. She has obviously changed, which is very understandable given that she’s been through a lot. She is now a mystery to Adam (at least in part), and, given that the POV is his, she is somewhat a mystery to the reader too. I liked her still, for old times’ sake; I wonder how I would have felt about her had this been the first time we met.

One thing I did like is the way the author has chosen to depict Bryn, Adam’s current girlfriend. She is flawed, but a decent human being overall (usually in these cases the other woman is a harpy of sorts, and I was glad the author has stayed away from the cliche).
show spoiler

Relationships
Like in the characters’ case, the relationship between Adam and Mia has been almost a disappointment. Not ’cause it was badly written (it wasn’t), but because it lacked the real-world-relationship feeling it had in the first book. In this one their past, everything Adam remembers, seems a tad too perfect. I am the first one to be saddened about the comparison; normally I am a sucker for perfect relationships, but the one depicted in ‘If I Stay’ felt real, felt worth the effort A & M put into it, and in contrast the perfect one felt too easy, and as such less.

Plot
Over and over while reading I was reminded of Before Sunrise. Boy meets girl, a chance encounter. They cannot bear to part, so they roam the streets of the city, officially for sightseeing’s sake, but in reality all they see is each other. Just like in the movie, Adam and Mia have to leave for different horizons in a few short hours. A relationship between them seems impossible now… and yet, what if it isn’t so? As previously stated I couldn’t put the book down :) All signs were pointing towards them saying goodbye to one another, having had closure and explanations, and all that. It would have been a very plausible ending… and yet I kept reading one page after another, well into the early hours, hoping that eventually they’ll realize what each of them has in the other, while at the same time fearing they will part ways.

Thoughts on the title
Complex :)
My issue with it is that the first book was titled ‘If I Stay’. Mia chose to stay, so Mia did not go anywhere (she remained on this plane of existence I mean) — so why does this title imply that she has chosen to go, instead of staying?

Thoughts on the ending
show spoiler

What I liked most
One thing I was glad to notice is the fame component of Adam’s life. I don’t know why it appealed to me so much, the fact that when he walked through the streets, his head filled with his thoughts and troubles, he also had to be wary of people recognizing him. May be because I find rather cool the idea of a chance encounter with a celebrity, on a subway or anywhere else. Or maybe I just like the consistency of it, the fact that the author always remembered to take into account the fact that her main character was famous & recognizable :)

The inclusion of lyrics from the album Adam has written when dealing with his grief, the album that has propelled the band to fame, was also a nice touch. I loved the way everything is rather abstract, filled with metaphors that take on new meanings when one knows what the story behind the words is.

My favorite:

There’s a piece of lead where my heart should beat
Doctor said too dangerous to take out
You’d better just leave it be
Body grew back around it, a miracle, praise be
Now, if only I could get through airport security

What I liked least
The vague supernatural element introduced. Sure, I was expecting Mia to remember the time she spent in a coma; her being able to have her parents around her at all times was a bit stretching it, but an okay way for her to keep on living without them I guess. However anything other than these two (such as the hint of memories Mia had from years before she was born) could have been very well skipped.

Recommend it to?
Anyone who read the first book and is curious what happens next :)

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This book is a sequel to:
If I Stay

Mercy / Jodi Picoult

Genre: Drama
Main characters: Cameron “Cam” MacDonald, Allie MacDonald, Jamie MacDonald
Time and place: 1995, Wheelock, Massachusetts
First sentence: When she had packed all the artifacts that made up their personal history into liquor boxes, the house became strictly a feminine place.

Summary: The quiet life of the small city of Wheelock is shattered one day when a man drives up to the chief of police and says “My wife here, Maggie, is dead. And I’m the one who killed her.”. The chief, Cameron MacDonald, had no choice but to arrest him and charge him with Murder One. And yet, things aren’t exactly what they seem — and the trial to follow will change the lives of everyone involved. In the end, this is a story of love, the things people do for it, and, of course, mercy.

I very much liked the way the author had set up backstories for each of the main characters, to help the reader understand them better. From this point of view my favorite just had to be Allie, whose story was not only the most detailed one but also had the most laudable feelings, her devotion to her husband Cam shining from one end to another. At the opposite end of the palette is Cam himself, who we know quite little about (he travelled, he dreams to travel again, he accepted his duty to his clan) and are given very few reasons to actually like. We may of course understand him at times, condemn him at others, but I don’t think there was a reason for me to actually like him. If anything I rather disliked him a bit for the way he took his wife’s affection for him for granted. There were a few additional characters I have found very colorful and as such I have to mention them here: Ellen, Cam’s mother, widowed and newly in touch with her spiritual side, and Angus, Cam’s uncle, who has lived the most part of his life in Scotland and who sometimes finds himself in the mind of an ancestor of his (usually while he is fighting at Culloden Moor).

Speaking of which, I am not very certain of how I feel about all the Scottish elements the author has added to the story. I was surprised, of course, to see the battle scenes at Culloden, and I also liked the way their shared past unified the people of Wheelock (all their ancestors having come there, in the 18th century, from the very same place). And yet I don’t find it very believable that, quite a few generations after leaving Scotland, the people there are still in need of a laird to nominally protect them, or that they still refer to non-Scots as Sassenachs. I cannot imagine a teenager of today for example, being so bent on respecting such old and faraway customs. But anyway, believable or not, and likeable to me or not, I have to admit it was quite an original touch. :)

I liked the fact that the author has attacked quite a controversial issue, namely euthanasia. What I wasn’t that fond of, and sort of missed throughout the book, was the presentation of more than one point of view. I mean, not only it can be clearly seen on what side of the argument the author is, she never actually bothered to even hint at the other side. Sure, it can be argued that we had the whole trial and both prosecution and defense have presented their considerations on the matter, but in my eyes they discussed quite another matter (“is euthanasia Murder One” rather than “can euthanasia be justified” — I don’t know what better way to say this, I know that at first sight they seem to be the same but I found them to be different). Perhaps what I am missing is the feeling I got when I read another book of the author’s, where both sides of the matter discussed there were so well represented I was actually torn apart between them and couldn’t decide who I thought was right. Sure, I started reading this book while already having a strong opinion towards the matter discussed, and yet I very much missed the battle of ideas I was expecting to find.

A quote I liked:

What else had they promised each other? She remembered Cam looking down at her, his voice steady and firm as it fell around her shoulders like a protective cap. With all that I have, and all that I am, I thee endow.
She had said the same words to him. Had they been true, they should have traded bits and pieces of their selves the same way they had shared blood: Cam might have taken her calmness, she might have inherited his quick temper; and so on, swapping emotions and attributes until they were no longer opposites but two of a kind.

What I liked most: The way the author did show nuances at times. For example, Jamie killed his wife because she asked him to. That’s the obvious reason, he loved her so much he honored her request. But there is also a less obvious reason, one that Jamie almost didn’t acknowledge himself: somewhere in the deep recesses of his mind, a part of him was hoping that by killing the sick Maggie, the Maggie that now was, he would somehow get back the healthy Maggie, the Maggie that used to be. Sure it’s not a very reasonable thing to expect, but the mind works in mysterious ways, and the fact that it didn’t happen (doh) only made it more difficult for Jamie to live on.

I also liked the subtle hint that show spoiler

What I liked least: I didn’t very much get the connection between Allie and Jamie. While I can understand the reason why she first paid him a visit, I don’t find that plausible the fact that a short while later they ended up inseparable, despite Allie’s husband disapproving of their friendship. What did Jamie have to offer Allie anyway, why did she keep hanging around him at first?

Recommend it to? Everyone who enjoys reading about controversial topics :)

Written by the same author:
Between the Lines (with Samantha van Leer)
My Sister’s Keeper

My Sister’s Keeper / Jodi Picoult

Genre: Drama
Main characters: Andromeda “Anna” Fitzgerald, Kate Fitzgerald, Campbell Alexander
Time and place: ’90s and ’00s, US
Summary: Kate Fitzgerald got sick with an aggressive form of leukemia when she was two. The doctors gave her few years to live at the very most, depending on whether or not they’ll find a matching donor to supply her with the blood cells she needs. Out of sheer desperation, her parents went to doctors and had another baby, genetically engineered to match Kate, and thus Anna was born. Years have passed with Anna having to go through various invasive surgeries, donating platelets, blood and bone marrow to her sister, often having to put her life on hold so that she was always around in case Kate needed anything. Now, thirteen years old and having to donate a kidney to her sister, Anna has decided she’s had enough so she goes to a lawyer and asks him to sue her parents in order to force them to let her make her own medical decisions from then on.

The characters were all imperfect and likable for this very reason. Sara, whose world revolved around her sick child, ignoring the other two because there’s only so many hours in a day and only so many thoughts in a man’s head at a time (I am not saying, of course, that ignoring your children is a good thing but the circumstances do excuse some of her behaviour). Brian, the hero fireman and the head of an unhappy family, with his own demons and his love for astronomy. Jesse, the older brother turned delinquent out of a desperate hope that this is the way to be noticed by others. Campbell Alexander, the lawyer, with his frail health and his haunted past. Julia, Anna’s guardian appointed by the court, with her lonely life and memories of a time with pink hair and self-sufficiency. Kate, the teenager with a life spent mostly in hospitals. And Anna, disconcerted, torn between opposing feelings, the love for her family, her mother and sister, but also dreaming of a time when she’d be able to go any place and follow any path she chooses.

I have loved (and been very impressed by) the fact that the story in the book is so complex it’s practically impossible to take sides, as the reader can relate to any of the characters in the book, understanding their faults and the choices that made them become the people they are. There is no set answer to the situation the characters are in, no black and white, no definite right and wrong. Anna feels she has the right to be selfish after 13 years of altruism, and can anyone blame her? Can anyone deny her the right to a life of her own? Of course not, but neither can anyone condemn Kate to death (because that is precisely what denying her the kidney would mean for her). Practically a lose-lose situation for little Anna, and the reader is drawn in hoping for an ending that’ll hurt her (and her family) the least.

Everything would have been a lot easier if at least one of the parties involved was uncaring, mean or had bad intentions. All the fingers would have pointed towards that character, problem solved. Only it’s not like that. Sure, Sara, the girls’ mother, doesn’t seem, most of the times, to care about all her children, because Kate (the needy one, the dying one) is always foremost in her thoughts. But, as the story unfurls, we see that we are wrong, that even though she doesn’t know how to show it she is the mother of all her children and she loves them all. A realization which only serves to up the sadness of it all up a notch, because both Jesse and Anna, the not-Kate children, have psychological issues, their subconscious wanting nothing more than to be noticed by others (as opposed to their actual lives which they live in the shadow of Kate).

A quote from Jesse (the brother):

I wound up that day at the middle of an intersection, smack under the traffic light, with taxis honking and a car swerving off to the left and a pair of cops running to keep me from getting killed. At the police station, when my dad came to get me, he asked what the hell I’d been thinking.
I hadn’t been thinking, actually. I was just trying to get to a place where I’d be noticed.

And one from Anna:

I USED TO PRETEND that I was just passing through this family on my way to my real one. It isn’t too much of a stretch, really—there’s Kate, the spitting image of my dad; and Jesse, the spitting image of my mom; and then there’s me, a collection of recessive genes that came out of left field. In the hospital cafeteria, eating rubberized French fries and red Jell-O, I’d glance around from table to table, thinking my bona fide parents might be just a tray away. They’d sob with sheer joy to find me, and whisk me off to our castle in Monaco or Romania and give me a maid that smelled like fresh sheets, and my own Bernese mountain dog, and a private phone line.

What I liked most: I was utterly charmed by the fact that Julia names her appliances. Her oven is Sylvia (I’m guessing for Sylvia Plath). The fridge is named Smilla (for its sense of snow). And her Braun coffee maker is named Eva.

What I liked least: The fact that the book lost a lot of what made it great (the impossibility to take sides, the moral conflict between the right to one’s own life and the possibility of saving the life of another) when nearing the end, turning the book from achingly dramatic to syrupy in a single scene (SPOILER: the scene where Anna denies everything she said, every single scene where she pleaded for the control of her own life and acted afraid of the surgery, and says that well, I actually couldn’t wait to give Kate my kidney but she made me do this because she wanted to die. And all of the sudden everything that gave the book its depth was gone. It went downhill from there too. END SPOILER).

Recommend it? Yes, I found it a great read and quite the page turner. Some people even liked the ending :D

Written by the same author:
Between the Lines (with Samantha van Leer)
Mercy

Message in a Bottle / Nicholas Sparks

Genre:fiction, romance, contemporary
Main characters:Theresa Osborne, Garrett Blake
Summary:That morning on the beach where Theresa, a divorced mother of one, went jogging seemed ordinary enough. When she found a bottle washed by the sea on the shore little did she know that it was going to change her life. The bottle contained a love letter, from a certain Garrett to his beloved Catherine. The beauty of the writing was rather intriguing, especially after Theresa managed to track down another two letters written by the same author. The next obvious step just had to be her finding the guy and going to see him, to get to know the man capable of writing such beautiful love letters. Predictable enough the two hit it off and start a relationship, a very special one to them both. But each of them is hiding a secret and unfortunately it takes them a little too long to realize just how important each of them is for the other.

Though I don’t actually like the name Theresa, I must say I liked the character. Both of them actually. They were both rather endearing getting closer and closer to each other despite the distance that separated them. I must say though that I only partially understood the fight going on inside Garrett, between letting himself love again and his keeping true to his dead wife’s memory. I mean I can understand the guilt and the anguish (probably only partially though as luckily I’ve never been through a similar situation) but I must say I hated those dreams he had about Catherine.

Oh, and of course I couldn’t believe the ending, I almost hoped against hope there was all a mistake and that all was going to end well. Unfortunately it didn’t. Such a pity for such wonderful feelings to go to waste.

Written by the same author:
The Lucky One