(This column was published in the Chapel Hill Herald on January 17, 2014)
Last August Gayle Forman’s first young adult (YA) novel, “If I Stay” If I Stay,”premiered in film. I suspect the sequel, “Where She Went” will become a film before too long. (both books from Dutton, audios from Penguin Audio, ages 14 and up) These companion volumes recount the life changes of Mia and her boyfriend Adam, after Mia’s family is killed in an accident.
Forman is coming to Flyleaf on Thursday, Jan. 29 at 7 p.m. where she’ll appear with local YA superstar author, Sarah Dessen. They will be celebrating the release of Gayle Forman’s fifth novel, “I Was Here” (book from Viking, audio from Listening Library, ages 14 and up).
“I Was Here” was my Christmas book this year. Many of our traditions have fallen away, but not the custom of reading a compelling book by a Christmas fire. When Forman’s newest novel arrived, I knew I’d found my read because Forman’s books always move at breakneck speed.
The beginning is gripping as first person narrator, Cody, receives an email from her best friend, Meg. “I regret to inform you,” it reads, “that I have had to take my own life.” Instantly Cody feels responsible. Why didn’t she maintain better contact after her friend left for college, or recognize Meg’s pain?
Forman carefully sets an emotional context before the rapid pacing takes over. Cody has grown up with an inattentive single mother and has never met her father “the sperm donor.” Her experience of family warmth has come through her close relationship with Meg’s parents and brother, from whom she now feels estranged.
Cody becomes driven to investigate Meg’s death. Her sleuthing is obsessive and everyone seems suspect—classmates, her roommates, Ben, the lover who rejected Meg. The path is convoluted for the “tentacles” of Meg’s suicide have a way of “reaching out, burning people who barely knew her.”
Finally Cody feels she’s found the responsible party, a man who identifies himself as All—BS on the Final Solutions website. Without a pause, the frenzied Cody takes on the dangerous mission of entrapping and confronting this monster. Her reasoning? “I have to do this-do something-by myself. For Meg. And for me.” Fueled by an anger that protects her from being “wide open: raw and gaping,” Cody tracks the culprit. She’s aided by Meg’s geeky housemate and Ben, Meg’s former lover.
After building this fever pitch of unrelenting action, Forman winds up with unsatisfying conclusions that aptly represent the pain of anyone who’s faced the complicated reactions to suicide. The villain has a child and suddenly Cody sees that “he was a monster and he was a person. He killed her and she killed her. I didn’t find anything.”
She does, in the end, discover some truths. Meg has hidden a depressive condition, her mother cares more than Cody ever imagined, she has a chance of love with Ben, and can now grieve with a “clean, simple broken heart.”
As I suspected before opening it, I couldn’t put this book down. It has Forman’s typical tangle of emotional complexity that is, in itself, engrossing. When you add the plot’s driving force, it may be only at book’s end that you’re able to catch your literary breath. At that point you may, like Cody and me, feel the aching sadness, seeing ahead a long path to healing.