I have read or partially read five of Gayle Forman’s books, and her writing is a bit of a fascinating contradiction for me. On the one hand, her stories tend to be romances that stick close to cliché. From the first meet-cute (or meet-awkward), we know who the leading lady and the leading man are meant to be. A broken girl gets healed by a possibly broken boy. Or a broken boy gets healed by a possibly broken girl. Love is magical, you know how it goes.
On the other hand, Forman’s writing itself is good. Although the underlying structure isn’t always unique, I think her voice itself is. I think Forman writes sometimes weak stories in strong ways. On a compare-and-contrast system that boils characters down to their attributes, Forman's characters might come out looking remarkably similar to other teen romance characters. Within the novels themselves, though, they tend to have strong voices -- and their stories are compelling.
As well, Forman’s settings shine. The European backdrops of her Just One Day and Just One Year read like delightful travelogues, while her latest, I Was Here, is a combined celebration/lamentation of small-town life.
If I had to pick, I’d say I Was Here is Forman’s most powerful novel so far. It’s certainly the one with the most mature subject matter. But it might also be her most unsettling. From the book’s summary:
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 roommates, the sort of people Cody would never 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.As Cody attempts to trace Meg’s path to such a devastating and final decision, I Was Here reads like a psychological thriller. But the mystery, though Cody doesn’t realise it herself, is really just the skeleton that she hangs her heavy grief upon. Cody is trying to heal herself – or perhaps absolve herself – while finding a reason, something on which to pin the blame for her best friend’s death. It’s as though the light of Cody’s world went out with Meg’s death, and everywhere she goes in her small town, the darkness lingers.
Here’s what I liked about I Was Here:
1) I appreciated the sharp pacing and the sometimes chilling tone. Here is a book that doesn’t joke about dark things – or if it does, the humour is dry and bleak, all thinly-veiled desperation and grief. Sometimes that maybe errs on the side of melodrama, but the adjective that comes most to mind is raw. In I Was Here, Cody’s grief, Meg’s parents’ grief, Ben’s grief, all of it is raw, and that comes through in the text.
2) Similarly, it’s honest about depression and its messiness, about the confusion and desperation it brings for those who don’t struggle with it but are trying to understand it for the ones they love.
3) Two shining characters stand out for me: one of Meg’s former roommates, Harry Kang, and Cody’s fairly messed-up mother. Harry is an adorable, nerdy Christian guy who helps Cody out, in spite of her prickly attitude and outright scary vibes. He’s genuinely pleased to use his tech skills to uncover some of the mystery behind Meg’s suicide, but he’s also kind, and cares about Cody’s welfare. Basically, everyone needs a Harry Kang in their lives. Then there’s Cody’s mom, whose child-raising technique up to this point has been to leave Cody to her own devices and focus instead on whoever the latest boyfriend is. But a few moments prove that maybe she sees more than she lets on. In one of my favourite lines from the book, she tells Cody, ‘You had a pile of rocks, and you cleaned them up pretty and made a necklace. Meg got jewels, and she hung herself with them.’ The second part may prove to be a lie, but the first part is definitely true.
Here’s what I didn’t like so much about I Was Here:
1) It seems like every strength can also be turned into a weakness on its flip side, and for me one of those weaknesses was the fact that I Was Here could perhaps be too dark. Since the book starts in the aftermath of Meg’s death, there is a hopelessness to the story that can be quite heavy. We know that, no matter what Cody uncovers, Meg is still going to be dead at the end of the book, and nothing can quite change that. We know, as well, that there are no shortcuts to grief. Time takes time, and that makes this book a fairly heavy one.
2) It could be incredibly triggering. I Was Here delves in-depth into Meg’s approach to suicide, the community that she surrounded herself with to encourage that, and her actual process of taking her own life. On one hand, this could be a really helpful for those struggling to understand a loved one’s depression or even suicide. On the other hand, for someone wrestling with those very things, this book could be unhelpfully triggering. At times I cringed as I read certain lines, thinking of how that might ring in the ears of those struggling with their own darkness.
3) Call me a prude (‘PRUDE!’), but there was too much swearing for me. There can be a jarring sort of violence to profanity that rattles around noisily in your head. I think this is especially so when the words are used with the full force of their literality – which is the case in several instances in I Was Here. My preference for cleaner texts is based on my own personal tastes and, largely, my faith. I understand that a well-chosen curse-word can communicate volumes – and I totally get that even if I don’t choose to use those words, the majority of the world around me does. I simply think that if they have to be there, they should be fewer – and, as a result, more powerful.
I Was Here is a road trip story, a coming-of-age story, a mystery, a romance. However, to be honest, the romance could’ve been done away with for me and the story would still have been powerful. I’m uncomfortable with the idea of sexual healing that this book suggests, that two grieving teenagers can ‘fix’ one another just by being together. Two broken people coming together in a broken way doesn’t magically make everything right. And although I was won over in a small way by the love interest in the end, I felt slightly manipulated, as though he was one type of person at the beginning of the story and another type of person at the end, but not as a result of character development -- just because. So I could have quite happily enjoyed the story without the romance at all.
After all, the ultimate love story of I Was Here is actually the love story of one friend for another, which is incredibly important, but far more rare in YA fiction.