The characters in If I Stay are connected by a deep love and respect for music. While a profound emotional response to music brings characters together, differences in taste and lifestyle also push them apart. Respecting the musical choices and tastes of characters in the novel therefore becomes a metaphor for accepting others for who they are, and also for accepting one’s own unique talents and tastes. This idea manifests in a motif of harmony in the novel, which comes to represent the blending of not just different notes and genres of music, but also the perfect mixing of different personality types and tastes.
Mia’s Mom and Dad, as well as her boyfriend Adam, are all lovers of rock music—as the novel is set in the punk and alternative scenes of the Pacific Northwest. Rock music is what brought together Mia’s parents, and it is what Adam loves and hopes to pursue as a career. However, Mia is a lover of classical music, a genre which is often associated with people who are quieter and more traditional, and she often feels out of place among her parents and Adam, who bond over their mutual interests and styles, to the extent that Mia often wonders if she is adopted. Yet Mia makes a concerted effort to understand the music her parents and Adam love, and her loved ones, in turn, attempt to understand her love of the cello and classical music. These efforts to reconcile and connect come to a climax when she plays the cello along with her Dad and Adam, who play the guitar. Together the three of them create a new kind of harmony, one of both people and music: classical music blends with rock, as do the personalities of people who prefer one genre to the other.
Mia is an exceptionally talented cellist, and hopes to study it at Juilliard in New York City. She is drawn to the cello because she finds it “humanlike” when she first sees one in school as a child. Her love of the cello is also symbolic of her profound appreciation for the small but close circle of people in her life. While some musicians play multiple instruments, she is drawn to and focuses all her energy on just one—just as she is very close to her immediate family, and socializes almost exclusively with Kim and Adam. Conversely, the people in her life who love rock music tend to have multiple pursuits within music, such as writing songs as well as playing them on the guitar, and they participate in a band rather than playing solo. By attempting to understand the appeal of rock music and playing in a band (an orchestra or quartet, in the case of the cello), Mia begins to open herself up, emotionally and musically. The cello is a symbol of the “family” Mia will have to return to if she decides to stay. The cello is what will bring her to New York to study at Juilliard, but it is also what will continue to separate her from Adam.
Ultimately, as Mia faces her choice of whether to follow her parents into death or stay behind and live, it is Adam playing cello music for Mia that prompts her to decide to stay. This is a metaphor for the deep understanding in the musical tastes of the other that bonds the two teenagers and is the basis for their love. When Adam and the cello are finally combined, Mia is reminded of what she will lose if she dies, and she is convinced to remain and cope with the loss of her parents.
Music and Harmony ThemeTracker
Music and Harmony Quotes in If I Stay
Just like with Shooting Star’s meteoric rise, my admission to Juilliard—if it happens—will create certain complications, or, more accurately, would compound the complications that have already cropped up in the last few months.
I know it’s silly but I have always wondered if Dad is disappointed that I didn’t become a rock chick. I’d meant to. Then, in third grade, I’d wandered over to the cello in music class—it looked almost human to me. It looked like if you played it, it would tell you secrets, so I started playing. It’s been almost ten years now and I haven’t stopped.
As usual, there is a battle for stereo dominance. Mom wants NPR. Dad wants Frank Sinatra. Teddy wants SpongeBob SquarePants. I want the classical-music station, but recognizing that I’m the only classical fan in the family, I am willing to compromise with Shooting Star.
Sometimes I did feel like I came from a different tribe. I was not like my outgoing, ironic dad or my tough-chick mom. And as if to seal the deal, instead of learning to play electric guitar, I’d gone and chosen the cello.
I was still scared, but it was somehow comforting to think that maybe stage fright was a trait I’d inherited from Dad; I wasn’t just some foundling, after all.
“I’m obsessed with music and even I don’t get transported like you do.”
A small part of me felt like even applying was some kind of betrayal. Juilliard was in New York. Adam was here.
When we got back home, Gramps dropped me off and enveloped me in a hug. Normally, he was a handshaker, maybe a back-patter on really special occasions. His hug was strong and tight, and I knew it was his way of telling me that he’d had a wonderful time. “Me, too, Gramps,” I whispered.
I didn’t mind. I was excited about a baby. And I knew that Carnegie Hall wasn’t going anywhere. I’d get there someday.
“Mia, Mia, Mia,” he said, stroking the tendrils of my hair that had escaped from the wig. “This is the you I like. You definitely dressed sexier and are, you know, blond, and that’s different. But the you who you are tonight is the same you I was in love with yesterday, the same you I’ll be in love with tomorrow. I love that you’re fragile and tough, quiet and kick-ass. Hell, you’re one of the punkest girls I know, no matter who you listen to or what you wear.”
“In my ideal scenario, my bighearted pushover husband and I die quickly and simultaneously when we’re ninety-two years old…Mia plays at our funeral. If, that is, we can tear her away from the New York Philharmonic.”
“I’d played that part of my life out. It was time. I didn’t even think twice about it, in spite of what Gramps or Henry might think. Sometimes you make choices in life and sometimes choices make you. Does that make any sense?”
Something had happened to my playing in that audition; I had broken through some invisible barrier and could finally play the pieces like I heard them being played in my head, and the result had been something transcendent: the mental and physical, the technical and emotional sides of my abilities all finally blending.
“…I do know that if you want to stay and be with him, I’d support that, though maybe I’m only saying that because I don’t think you’d be able to turn down Juilliard. But I’d understand if you chose love, Adam love, over music love. Either way you win. And either way you lose. What can I tell you? Love’s a bitch.”
So I played. And even though you wouldn’t think it, the cello didn’t sound half bad with all those guitars. In fact, it sounded pretty amazing.
Yo-Yo Ma continues to play, and it’s like the piano and cello are being poured into my body, the same way that the IV and blood transfusions are. And the memories of my life as it was, and the flashes of it as it might be, are coming so fast and furious. I feel like I can no longer keep up with them but they keep coming and everything is colliding, until I cannot take it anymore. Until I cannot be like this one second longer.