Okay. This is going to be a first in the history of IWtSLtY: a book review that isn’t overwhelmingly positive.
It’s true. Stay with me.
I picked up Gayle Forman’s If I Stay with great excitement, given that it’s cornered a high number of glowing reviews from eminent sources. When I read that the protagonist, Mia, was a cellist, I was even more excited. I’m a cellist myself, and I don’t see a lot of my fellow players in mainstream media. There’s The Soloist, and A Song From the Heart, and … yeah, that’s about it.
Here’s what I liked about the book:
- The plot is engaging. Mia and her family are in a car accident; she is left in an intermediate state to choose whether she wants to live or die. As she reflects on her life and tries to decide, she touches on a lot of good discussion points about the power of choice, the purpose of living, the importance of identity, true selflessness, and what it means to live well.
- Mia’s family is so lovable and relatable — I fell in love with them more and more as the story went on. (If you’ve read the book, you’ll understand why this was a frustrating development.)
- It was a nice touch for Mia to be a classical musician in the context of her family and boyfriend being hard-core rock enthusiasts. It could easily have been a cheesy Romeo-and-Juliet story, where their differences threaten to come between them, but Forman spun the story in a lovely, organic way that made those differences funny and down-to-earth.
- Forman describes the family and boyfriend’s rock knowledge in a way that makes it clear that she shares this interest. She knows a lot about the rock scene, and her knowledge and enthusiasm shine through and make her writing vivid and engaging.
To summarize: There was a lot I liked about If I Stay, and I can see why so many people love it. Go, Gayle!
Here’s where I put on my Hat of Pretension and get nitpicky.
As I mentioned, I’m a cellist. I started when I was 8; I went to cello camp during the summer; I played in orchestras from age 10 to 22. I will even admit that for a brief time, I played with a string quartet called Bach ‘n’ Rock.
(We played considerably more Bach than rock. Shocking, I know.)
So when I read this sentence on page 6 of If I Stay, spoken by the serious cellist Mia, my eyebrows went up:
“I’m also supposed to rehearse with some pianist from the college that Professor Christie dug up.”
This remark was a bit jarring. It’s the voice of a teenager who is bored with this whole classical music thing, not the expression of someone who has just auditioned for a place at Juilliard. Rule #1 in the world of cello recitals (and, I suspect, throughout the soloing world at large) is this: Your accompanist can break you so easily. You do not dismiss him or her as just another body onstage. You take each prospective accompanist seriously as you try to find a good fit, and when you do find the right one, you respect him or her as an artist in his or her own right and work tirelessly until both of you can bring the music to life as a seamless team.
But OK, maybe Mia was just tired when she said that. Or maybe she was being flippant as a joke. It’s just one remark. Let’s move on with the story.
Car accident … ambulance … ack, things are getting tense. What’s going to happen next?
Flashback to when Mia first saw a cello at school, at age 8:
“It was a fluke that they even had a cello; they’re very expensive and fragile. But some old literature professor from the university had died and bequeathed his Hamburg to our school. It mostly sat in the corner. Most kids wanted to learn to play guitar or saxophone.”
Hold on — I’m being jerked out of the story again. Fragile? I wouldn’t say that cellos are more fragile than any other instrument. And if the cello was a professor’s, I’m not really surprised that the kids weren’t attracted to it. I’m more surprised that it was in an elementary school at all — eight-year-olds are going to need half-size cellos, not the full-size kind that adults play.
(P.S.: Google “1/32 cello”. It’s freaking adorable.)
But OK, maybe a cello seems fragile to a sensitive sixteen-year-old. Maybe the Hamburg was there for the biggest students, or it was the professor’s half-size from way back in the day. It’s just a couple of small details. Let’s keep reading.
Three paragraphs later, more questions emerge:
“Rusty scales and triads led to first attempts at ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ that eventually gave way to basic etudes until I was playing Bach suites.”
Scales, then triads, then the Twinkles, then etudes? Here’s the Hat of Pretension in full form, but that’s an interesting skill progression. In my experience (Suzuki method all the way, man), the Twinkles would be first in that line-up. They’re a tune everyone knows, so students can hear their own mistakes; and the tune uses only three fingers, two strings, and one hand position, so students can get used to the basic mechanics of the bow and fingers. Scales and triads are a bit trickier — you can only play in so many keys before you have to learn half-position and extended first, which (again, at least in Suzuki) doesn’t happen until … hmm … the beginning of book 2? Help me out here, fellow Suzukis. It’s been a while.
But OK, the Suzuki method doesn’t rule the world. I get that. Different strokes for different teachers. Also, Mia is super talented. It’s plausible that she not only tackled scales right off the bat but was also learning thumb position by age nine (though, gosh, if she was, isn’t that medically unwise? Couldn’t it permanently disfigure your thumb at that age?).
Moving on … how cool is it that Mia’s school has an entire music wing? Way to go, school. … Yo-Yo Ma concert? So jealous. …
Then, in another flashback, Mia brings her boyfriend over for dinner. Afterwards, they go up to her room:
“‘Play me,’ he said.
‘I want you to play me like a cello.’
I started to protest that this made no sense, but then I realized it made perfect sense. […] I ran my hands up and down the length of his torso, focusing on the sinews in his muscles, assigning each one a string — A, G, C, D. […] I reached for the bow and brushed it across his hips, where I imagined the bridge of the cello would be. I played lightly at first and then with more force and speed as the song now playing in my head increased in intensity.”
A couple of things.
- The strings on a cello, in order, are A, D, G, and C. (Perhaps she’s playing his sinews out of order as a metaphor for how their personal priorities and fates are also misaligned? It’s possible.)
- My very first cello lesson had four components:
- “This is the cello.”
- “This is the bow.”
- “Never, EVER let the bow’s hair touch anything except the strings and the rosin. Not your fingers, not your clothing, not the floor, not a tabletop, not your face. NOTHING.”
- “This is how you hold the cello and the bow.”
Note the priorities there: Proper bow care came before proper posture. So when I read about a cellist running her bow all over her boyfriend like the local luthier is having a “$50 off” special on bow rehairing, please excuse me if I go the tiniest bit ballistic.
(I have considered the possibility that Mia knew exactly what she was doing to her bow but decided that her boyfriend was worth it, or decided to play him with the back of the bow instead. However, you’d think that this thought process would be represented in the mind of a serious cellist, instead of the immediate conclusion that the proposed activity “made perfect sense.”)
At this point, I gave up the idea that the author might play the cello. The small jarring points continued throughout the book until the fourth-to-last page, when I read this passage and emitted a short sob of frustration:
“He turns up the volume so I can hear the music floating across the morning air. Then he takes my hand. It is Yo-Yo Ma. Playing Andante con moto e poco rubato.”
(Just a warning: The Hat of Pretension is about to be joined by the Gloves of Utter Snobbishness.)
Technically speaking, this is a reference to a real piece. George Gershwin wrote it; Yo-Yo Ma has recorded it. You can listen to it here.
But that’s also a pretty vague way of referring to a piece. “Andante con moto e poco rubato” might appear across the top of that piece, but it could also appear across the top of any piece, or indeed at any point throughout any piece. That’s because it’s not necessarily the name of the piece; it’s just instructions on how to play it — in this case, “At a walking pace, with motion and a little bit of stretch in the rhythm.” So, saying “He’s playing ‘Adagio calando'” or “She’s playing ‘Allegro con brio,'” without any context about the composer or larger work, is not necessarily like saying “They performed ‘Who’s On First’.” It’s more like saying “His homework is ‘Use a #2 pencil’ through ‘Write full sentences.'”
This isn’t to say that these terms can’t be used as titles. They definitely can, as seen in pieces like Saint-Saëns’ “Allegro Appassionato” (another great cello piece, BTW). In general, though, the rule seems to be that if the piece has another title designator, then the Italian (or German, or French) text that appears afterwards is technically just instructions, to be used as a faux title in programs and during rehearsals. In this case, “Andante con moto e poco rubato” appears after the designator “II”, so I would argue that an accurate title for this piece would be “II. Andante con moto e poco rubato” for a formal concert program, “Three Preludes, No. 2″ for a more informal program, or, in casual conversation, “Gershwin’s Second Prelude” — but certainly not Andante con moto e poco rubato as a standalone entity.
Then I reached the afterword and this comment from the author, reflecting on the story’s early stages:
“I knew nothing whatsoever about the cello and not so much about classical music.”
Her honesty is refreshing, but it’s also kind of frustrating. If your protagonist’s life is going to be shaped by and centered on a particular discipline, and you readily admit that you’re not familiar with that discipline, wouldn’t it be wise to have your story’s details thoroughly vetted by experts in that discipline? I’m definitely no expert; as I’ve mentioned, some of the “jarring details” I named could be rationalized away by a cellist from a different background (or shrugged off as irrelevant by anyone with lower blood pressure). Still, it seems like a knowledgeable hand could have smoothed out some of the rough edges in Mia’s character and made her voice more trustworthy.
Beyond my interactions with the story, the frustration I experienced while reading If I Stay was a cautionary tale for my own writing. Like Forman’s people, my characters are diverse in their backgrounds and interests. As I strive to color my stories more richly, I’ve loved learning little bits and pieces about crab fishing and stained glass and convent life and cystic fibrosis. But as I do this, I have to remember that my “little details” are the crucial details of many people’s lives. They know these details far better than I do, and if I misrepresent their collective experiences, I’m alienating them as readers. It won’t matter if my description is technically true for some reader somewhere; I need to strive to be as accurate as possible for as many people as possible. It doesn’t mean I should write with my audience peering over my shoulder and arguing about my story’s details. It does mean I should try to never stop admitting my own deficiencies and striving to remedy them.
What book or movie has disappointed or distracted you with its inaccuracies? Do you think it matters how much research goes into a story?