Published by Viking on January 27, 2015
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Cody and Meg were inseparable.
Two peas in a pod.
Until . . . they weren’t anymore.
When her best friend Meg drinks a bottle of industrial-strength cleaner alone in a motel room, Cody is understandably shocked and devastated. She and Meg shared everything—so how was there no warning? But when Cody travels to Meg’s college town to pack up the belongings left behind, she discovers that there’s a lot that Meg never told her. About her old roommates, the sort of people Cody never would have met in her dead-end small town in Washington. About Ben McAllister, the boy with a guitar and a sneer, who broke Meg’s heart. And about an encrypted computer file that Cody can’t open—until she does, and suddenly everything Cody thought she knew about her best friend’s death gets thrown into question.
I Was Here is Gayle Forman at her finest, a taut, emotional, and ultimately redemptive story about redefining the meaning of family and finding a way to move forward even in the face of unspeakable loss.
I’m not really a contemporary person, but I am very much a Gayle Forman person. With that said, I’m not sure anyone could be more disappointed than I am that I did not love this book. Forman’s prose and storytelling talent have shown me the heights of what contemporary can achieve in her previous duologies. I do think, honestly, that she is near peerless within her genre. So what left me so cold about her most recent release?
A thing with me is that books take on their own “color” and mood. The experience of reading this book felt just like being under a constant cover of gray skies. There was so little in the way of hope or optimism. Which is fine, I suppose. But even if you’re going to stick readers with difficult emotions there should at least be some sort of catharsis. Unfortunately, even that fell through.
The synopsis of this book sort of/almost bills this as an investigation into “What really happened to Meg?” As if Cody will find out through her sleuthing skills, and hacking into Meg’s protected files, what actually drove Meg to commit suicide. As if there is a greater answer than, “Meg was suffering from a disease.” But the book really isn’t about any sort of mystery. It’s about Cody. And what she’s left with after she so unexpectedly loses Meg.
One of the biggest problems I had with the novel is that we are dropped into the story after Meg’s suicide. The reader never has a chance to know Meg except through Cody’s recollections which are far too few and between for my taste. Cody reminisces about Meg, and reflects on their history and friendship. We are told things about Meg but it is never truly felt, it’s never shown. The flashbacks that were so skillfully employed in If I Stay are gone here. It is a completely different narrative style and not one that serves the story.
Additionally, being in Cody’s head just isn’t a pleasant place to be. While this is understandable, considering she is a grieving and vulnerable teen, there were so many caustic and bitter aspects that I couldn’t abide. Cody’s not had an easy time of things, coming from a lower class upbringing and a mom who, for all appearances, could care less. She consistently refers to herself as “white trash,” is pessimistic, angry, bitter, and cynical about pretty much all things. Again, I understand that this an understandable place for a person to be after the suicide of a loved one. It does not make the book any more palatable of a read.
There is an overall failure of bringing depth to the characters. At least there’s no depth like there was in Forman’s previous novels. There’s not much to Cody beyond who she is as defined by Meg. There isn’t much to any of the other main characters in Cody’s life. There is an incredible sense of bleakness that emerges from Cody’s description of her Pacific West small town that feels creeping and inescapable. I didn’t want it to come off the page which is both a testament to how well Gayle Forman can write and also how much the world she’s created is an unpleasant and undesirable place to be.
As the synopsis alludes to, there is somewhat of a “mystery” element to this story. Cody delves into the world of online suicide boards. It’s a heavy thing and she does treat it with appropriate seriousness. But the place she was willing to go with this story was further than I was willing to go. View Spoiler »Cody baits a guy who is “encouraging” people (including Meg) to take their lives. She goes so far as to track down his identity and drive several days with a borrowed car to confront him. Guess how well it goes. « Hide Spoiler
And, oh my goodness, let’s not get me started on the romance. I cannot recall ever wishing a book did not have a romantic element. I wish this book did not have a romantic element. One guess as to how Cody meets this “romantic lead.” Yes, that’s right. She finds him through Meg’s cyber trail. This guy was a “friend” of Meg’s who ditched her after they slept together. He’s a bad boy musician who Cody can’t deny but feel the tension with immediately after they meet. Excuse me, but I’m gagging.
Admittedly, at some point Cody says that it is “fucked up” that they like each other but it doesn’t do much by way of an explanation. They barely spend any time together. And although their connection (a dead woman) is emotionally charged, it doesn’t excuse the fact that he appears to be a terrible person, and also they barely spend any time together in the book. Finally they take a road trip, where even more cliche things happen like View Spoiler »Mr. Bad Boy I’ve Slept With So Many Girls and Miss Innocent Yet Guarded Virgin finally break down and have sex « Hide Spoiler but it is without emotional victory or redemption.
Usually, if anyone can pull off cliches it’s Gayle Forman. In Just One Day (a book I LOVE), Allyson and Willem fall for each in such a ludicrously short period of time yet she makes it believable and effortless. What a feat. It is just so sadly not the case here.
I will say, though, that I did appreciate the way the novel shows that we can be blind to the emotional or mental health needs of even those who are closest to us. Obviously a suicide is never anyone’s fault. But there is a danger in being in denial of what is going on with those close to us. It is good to be familiar with the symptoms of depression.
I wish I had felt more positively about this book. I wish this was a different book. Forman has a gift for creating incredibly human characters. You want to love them. You want to love a Gayle Forman novel. I didn’t feel any of that gift in the main characters presented in this story. Perhaps this book just fell victim to over expectation. Ms. Forman obviously has some big boots to fill with every release now. I don’t envy her. Here’s hoping the next release goes better for us all.