Novel: I Was Here by Gayle Forman | Goodreads
Release Date: January 27, 2015
Publisher: Viking Juvenile (Penguin)
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’ll likely talk about this book more when it gets closer to release — I just loved it too much to put off gushing.)
The solemn feel of Forman’s latest is a stark contrast to her previous reads; while seemingly colder than her previous novels, it still delivers enough of an emotional pull to leave me teary. It has a small-town feel with a big heart.
The novel begins with Cody talking about Meg’s death. Cody got an automated email from her best friend Meg a month or two earlier, explaining what she had done to herself and informing her loved ones that they were not at fault. Because before they received the emails, Meg had ingested a hard-to-find poison and committed suicide in a seedy motel, leaving nothing but the confusion and a large tip for the maid.
Meg and Cody shared everything, including a family. Cody’s mother, Tricia, was always running around with various men and so Cody was practically raised in Meg’s household. Now, after her death, Cody struggled afterwards, between the grief and the disjointed feeling of no longer belonging among Meg’s family and the guilt and overall, the overwhelming curiosity: why did Meg do it? What was she upset about? What did she leave behind in her college town?
When Meg’s parents asked Cody to pack up Meg’s things for her, she gratefully accepted and trekked down to Tacoma, partly to fulfill their request and partly to find some answers. But when she found Ben, a suave guitar-player that had a gray-area relationship with Meg, and a suicide help group, she began to believe that there was more to Meg’s suicide than she originally thought.
Gayle Forman has character-based novels primarily and she executes them with grace. While they may not be appealing to every reader, she pulls them off well and I Was Here is no exception. It’s a startling contemporary, filled with character reflections and a bit of grit, a heavy sadness that isn’t overwhelming. There’s a magnetism to her work that continues throughout this one in particular.
While I wasn’t as attached to Cody as I’ve been to previous Forman heroines, I felt a load of empathy and sadness for what she went through. She was likable, somewhat cold simply because of her protective exterior. She had a bit of a fiery confidence that came out only when she was provoked – or defending Meg – and warmed her up to me a little bit.
As Cody discovered more about her deceased best friend, her own character development was skillfully depicted. Gayle Forman pulled us through Cody’s day-to-day life with grievous anecdotes and lovely descriptions. The numbing, deadened feeling so powerfully shown in Cody’s narrative was heartbreaking. That tone was definitely the standout factor of the book; it seems like such a simple concept to nail down but Forman is the first author I’ve read in a while who really articulated the indescribable feeling of grief.
There are essentially two or three major aspects of the book: the suicide group, Cody’s home life and development, and Meg’s other connections from Tacoma.
The plot itself was rather slow but the meditative pace helps to reinforce the characters’ impact. I’m not normally okay with such plodding paces but it seemed to work for this one, particularly because it was indicative of Cody’s life. It doesn’t fall under the radiant-best-friend-bland-protagonist trope but Meg was definitely a revolving point of Cody’s world. As Cody put it in one area, it’s like Meg was the sun and she was dying because the sun was extinguished.
The suicide group came into play because Cody discovered that Meg recruited help in killing herself from an online forum. Instead of being a suicide group attempting to prevent death, they encouraged it. They preached suicide as the ultimate enlightenment, or “the Final Solution.” When Cody started digging around, she traced it back to one specific figure. As the book unfolded, she dealt with her feelings towards that person, what to do about it, how much of Meg’s suicide was influenced by the group.
Cody’s home life and development reminded me of Christa Desir’s writing because it felt pretty desolate. She cleaned houses for a living – which is a perfectly respectable position and she did well with it – but couldn’t pursue the same opportunities as Meg because she was limited by her economic and family situation. Her mother, Tricia, cared about her but often had difficulty showing it in a way that was empathetic. They bonded, but Tricia mostly worried about whether or not Cody would get pregnant because she didn’t want Cody ending up like her. So a huge part of I Was Here simply dealt with Cody’s identity not only in relation to Meg, but in relation to her family and hometown.
I enjoyed those parts, particularly because I thought Forman did an excellent job of tackling an interesting family dynamic. It wasn’t horrible or abusive; it wasn’t fantastic. It was somewhere in-between, particularly when it related to Meg’s family being practically surrogate for Cody. The book deals with, quite simply, shades of grey. In relationships, positions, meanings. Cody’s struggle, therefore, was to navigate out of those waters and decide for herself what happened, and what she wanted.
Ben was a guy that I liked. Again, like Cody, he wasn’t as accessible as your average YA lit guy but he was likable. He played guitar and smoked and attempted to help raise Meg’s kittens. He slept around and had a shoddy dad but wasn’t portrayed like some hulking, bad guy just because of his situations or actions. He was nice; he was the type of guy you could hold a conversation with. That, more than anything, confused Cody. Their relationship – romantic or otherwise, along with his relationship with Meg – was mercurial and difficult and realistic.
Meg’s other friends were hard for Cody to come to terms with, particularly Meg’s roommates. Some of them didn’t know her very well and others went out of their way to be nice to Cody. Because Cody had a lot of pre-existing notions about all of them – mostly from Meg’s detailed emails – she was forced to break down her prejudices and reevaluate them all after Meg’s death. Yet again, learning how to define herself apart from Meg.
Even though she revolved slightly around Meg, she was her own person before-and-after. She was independent, but had only ever connected with Meg so she didn’t particularly know how to connect to other people.
Even in writing a review, I can describe the book or the characters using adjectives but it really comes down to the idea that it’s a story that made me want to talk about it. It’s a story that’s contemplative and serious and more than a little melancholy. While Cody’s emotional state is heavy, the book is more quiet than anything else. It’s more of an exploration of all the post-mortem feelings.
It’s different from Forman’s usual but I loved it. It was well-done. It’s a riskier read if you think you’re not into low-impact, meditative sorts of reads, and it may be better to read it in one go, but it’s graceful and refined. It’s really a lovely contemporary and I recommend it.
Recommended for anybody who loves: Where the Stars Still Shine; Lovely, Dark, and Deep;