Also by this author: Just One Day, Just One Year, Just One Night
Published by Viking Juvenile on January 27 2015
Genres: Contemporary, Depression & Mental Illness, Emotions & Feelings, Family, Young Adult
Pages: 288 •Format: Hardcover •Source: Library
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.
“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.”
In all honesty, I wasn’t sure what to expect from I Was Here. It was my first time reading a novel by Gayle Forman and it dealt with the loaded topic of not just a suicide, but a suicide that already happened. So I embarked on this reading journey with a lot of curiosity and a dash of hopefulness, and I was a bit surprised by what I found. I Was Here was not romantic or lyrically or profound like I had anticipated based on what I’d heard of Forman’s other works, but it had a raw honesty about it that I haven’t found in YA when dealing with suicide.
The novel starts with a grim setting in a dead-end small town, and though the scenery changes, the melancholy tone does not. At first it was hard to put myself as a reader into the book’s dreary world, but I learned to appreciate the tone it created for the story. Cody is dealing with the aftermath of the suicide of her best friend, Meg, who was one of the few people Cody knew who managed to escape their town and go to college in a larger city. The novel follows Cody’s quest to find out what drove Meg to the suicide and confront just how disconnected her and Meg became after Meg’s leaving for college. This is where the most glaring problem first crops up in the novel: Meg is already dead. It’s tragic and horrible and a unique premise since the suicide has already happened, but it also robs the reader of forming an emotional connection with Meg and Cody, as it’s hard to get a sense of who Meg was or of the depth of Cody’s grief, because Meg is already gone. Meg and Cody’s relationship mostly lacks depth because it’s depicted with much more telling than showing, with Cody stating she did XYZ with Meg or describing how she and Meg looked in a picture, rather than showing the reader the closeness of their relationship (flashbacks can get annoying but I think they may have really helped in this book). As a reader, it’s hard to even really picture Meg and Cody as friends most of the time, because all you see is the fractured aftermath of the end of their already deteriorating relationship.
A few times at the beginning I thought I might have to DNF the book because it was not only depressing (which is to be expected, considering the topic) but pretty slow, too. Then Cody discovers that Meg was involved with a “suicide support group” online (the kind of group that encourages suicidal thinking, rather than urging others to seek help) and decides to investigate the extent of Meg’s involvement with the group and how deeply the group/certain members may have impacted her decision to take her own life. Once this disturbing element of the story was introduced, I could not put the story down. I had to find out what happened next, to see if Meg’s death was really more of an self-assisted murder, to see if there was foul play, etc. It totally turned into a whodunnit situation and, being the giant Nancy Drew fan that I am, couldn’t resist the pull of the mystery. I was also intrigued by Forman’s inclusion of “suicide support groups” as it added a disturbing element to the story that shows the scary impact and pull strangers over the internet can have (it reminded me a lot of the “pro-ana or pro-mia” blogs that encourage people to continue on with their eating disorders. I studied them for one of my sociology classes in college and groups that support destructive behaviors online through positive encouragement and manipulative tactics are a very, very real thing).
So once this mystery element started I was waiting for this huge, climactic ending…and there wasn’t one. Cody spends all this time tracking the truth down, but there’s really no sense of closure or justice or anything. I was sitting there expecting the cops and FBI to come in, sirens blaring, Cody a bearer of truth in a truly messed up situation…but Cody’s big revelations truly fall flat. I think Forman stretched the plot to thin introducing not only the online suicide groups, but also creepy specific individuals who served as “predators” to these at-risk people such as Meg. It sets the book up to be this big mystery with absolutely no satisfactory resolution. Also, can we please just take a moment and discuss the fact that Cody spends a majority of the novel developing a relationship (albeit with good intentions) with a manipulative online stranger, and then charges straight ahead to confront said creeper AT THEIR HOME and not only is it brushed off as no big deal after (aside from a few “You could have been kidnapped/murdered!” comments) but faces virtually no retaliation from said creepy individual? Not only is it HIGHLY unlikely that a 19 year old girl traveling to confront an internet predator would escape unscathed, but it doesn’t really focus enough on the DANGER of doing such a thing. I get it, Cody is tough and street-wise and headstrong but there is some basic common sense when it comes to internet safety and stranger danger. Just saying.
Though the story was a bit boring in some places, Forman’s writing had a brutality to it that really gave the novel a strong tone of aching and grief. Cody is bitter and angry and has an inappropriate sense of humor at times, but she is clearly in pain. What stood out in the novel most, though, was Forman’s ability to explore the knife’s edge line between contemplating one’s death and being truly suicidal. A few of the characters reflect on the pain and challenges in their lives that make them seriously question their motives for even bothering with it anymore. They admit that death can seem a comfortable and glamorous option. As Stoner Richard says: “We’ve all been there.” The novel isn’t a morality tale telling readers that suicide is wrong and you’re wrong for ever thinking about it; rather it acknowledges the overbearing nature of life, and how different people pull through it…and how some people, like Meg don’t. I would have liked to see mental illness such as depression talked about in the novel more though, as it’s introduced as a topic in the last few pages without really receiving the gravity it deserves.
Also a quick note on the romance: I’m not going to go in-depth about it because it’s so insignificant to the overall story and honestly it would’ve been a stronger book without it. It felt so thrown in compared to the larger, darker themes in the book and was just sort of ridiculous and distracting.
Overall: I Was Here had a lot of problems for me: the anticlimactic mystery, to much telling instead of showing, and an unnecessary romance. However, it dealt with the topic of suicide uniquely and the writing felt raw and painful and real. By the end of the novel I found myself getting a little misty eyed (and I never cry while reading) because I was exhausted watching Cody single-handedly bear the burden of Meg’s death, and her eventual breakdown and confrontation of Meg’s suicide rubbed my emotions raw. I Was Here has a lot of heavy and important themes, but they’re unfortunately buried under a lot of less-than-stunning elements. Also, did anyone else find that this bordered on New Adult?
Reading this book contributed to these challenges:
- Goodreads Challenge