Review: I Was Here by Gayle Foreman


title:  I Was Here

author:  Gayle Foreman

pages: 288

format: Hardcover 

isbn/asin: 978-0451471475

buy it: Amazon  Goodreads  B&N

rating: 4/5 [in the genre] or 7.5/10 [all books I’ve ever read].

recommended for:  Fans of 

will i read this author again?:  Yes, anything she has.   
will i continue the series?:  N/A
My Ratings Explained

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.

the basics
Perhaps you've noticed a number of books about suicide released this year.  At least three with press.  Before you deem this "another suicide book," remember that we're talking about Gayle Foreman.  She brings all of the emotion and gravity of If I Stay to a set of deeply imagined characters on a quest for answers.  Our narrator, Cody, is a complex soul burdened not only with her best friend's suicide, but also her own guilt--that they had grown apart, that she hadn't seen it coming.  The story is as much about Cody's grappling with her guilt and grief as it is about the mystery of Meg's suicide.  Despite elements that struck me as trite or off-putting (primarily the My Fair Douchebag), I Was Here combines tight plotting, characters pulled out of life, and a deeply affecting story.  

plot . 4/5
Foreman takes a clever tact with the beginning:  she sets it after the suicide, weeks after.  The initial shock is over, leaving Cody in a haze of memorial services.  The hook hits when Meg's parents ask Cody to go to Meg's college apartment to collect her things.  There, Cody discovers Meg's seeming double life, a cast of friends and ex-lovers Cody never knew about.  She begins to feel like she didn't know Meg.  And she begins to discover that no one else seemed to either.  Her run-in with Meg's ex spurs a rabbit-hole of hidden clues that seem to point to something sinister.  Cue Cody, Ben, and a crazy investigative road trip.  It sounds insane, and it is, a little.  Even Cody seems aware of that.  She's grasping for something else, a sign that she really knew Meg.  But as she delves into Meg secrets, she can't help facing the truths she's hidden from herself.  It may sound like a cheesy teen mystery squad, but give Foreman a chance: what she delivers is a story of spiraling grief and redemption.  

The parts I didn't like?  Namely, bad boy Ben turning instantly from player douche into sensitive confidante.  The reformed player, the "saved" bad boy, is a fun fantasy, but I hope young readers see it as that.  People can change, but the boys you think you can save are often the ones who break you.  

concept . 5/5
Foreman looks at suicide in a different light than I've encountered.  Really, every book about suicide is different.  I'm glad they're out there, because mental health awareness is my life.  But Foreman deepens her novel from potential grief-porn into a a vignette of someone's darkest moment, and all the layers that go into it.  Meg's death brings into focus Cody's own sidetracked plans.  The college she didn't go to, the dreams she didn't chase.  Cody finds herself in community college, living with her absentee mother, wandering and uncertain.  Meg's suicide represents the death of her best friend, but also the death of possibilities: the life they had planned to have, the chance for them to fix their broken friendship.  Cody's story is one of self-forgiveness.  It also deals with an important but little talked about fantasy of many survivors: that maybe it wasn't suicide. That if they could just find a reason, it could all make sense.  Foreman deals with this notion artfully and cleverly.  

characters . 4/5
Cody is fairly likable, but more than that, she's unique.  She's not the typical YA heroine, the smart shy girl or the outcast or the fallen princess.  She's sort of average.  She's smart but not that smart.  She's never met her dad, her mom is out of her depth, and she's basically been raised by her best friend's family.  She's a refreshing change, and a truly complex person.  Meg herself is somewhat obscure.  What we come to know through Cody is that there was much she didn't know.  There are her sharp memories of Meg juxtaposed with this new Meg.  It works well; we feel as confused as Cody.  Ben is the other main player.  While I do think his change of heart was too quick and he's not a good model for a successful boyfriend,  I also have a soft spot for the broken bad boy.  I just get my fix in fiction.  I was torn between eye rolling and "aw."  What I wanted more of were the side characters, especially Alice, Tricia, Scottie, and Richard.  They were intriguing but swept aside, and I liked to see how Cody changed and was challenged by them.  Also, she totally should have dated Richard.  Just sayin'.  

style . 5/5
There's a thin line between accessibility and beauty.  Some authors step too far to either side, but Foreman has mastered a poetic, wistful style that still feels extremely plausibly teen-aged.  Cody's voice was as strong to me as though I were reading someone's diary.  She was evident in all the turns of phrase, the peculiar observations, the inner monologues.  Speaking of logues, Foreman's dialogue is sharp as always.  The tongue-in-cheek overtones lighten the mood just enough to let you ponder and process before you dive back into emotions.  It's a perfect parallel to Cody's own feelings; she hides behind her sarcasm and stays on the surface, but eventually she has to deal with reality.  

mechanics . 3.5/5
There were a few piecing of world building and such that I wasn't quite a fan of, and it mostly centered around tropes.  One: there is the manwhore who sleeps around, but really he does it because he had a bad childhood, and he just needs the right girl to settle down.  Can we cut it out?  If a guy or girl wants to have multiple partners, that shouldn't be seen as pathological.  The scenario I described might be true and actually problematic for people, but then Foreman really needed to treat it less opaquely.  Two: teenagers with mad hacking skills.  I'm skeptical.  Although, at least Foreman keeps it mostly plausible.  Three: Cody was super judgey about Ben's sex life.  It just really annoyed me, especially that she didn't seem to relent.  Four: This is a good one. There's a (very vague, PG) sex scene, and there are multiple instances of active consent!  I.e. partners checking in with each other, double checking.  Hurrah! 

Also the title is a brilliant encapsulation of the book.  

take home message
Cody's story mingles the pangs of emergent adulthood with the sharp pain of loss--and inevitably, the power of shedding the lies we tell ourselves and taking a leap.  

Note: I purchased this copy.  The price of the book and its origin in no way affected my stated opinions.  

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