Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Review: If You Stay by Courtney Cole

Since I'm juggling whether my own novel is new adult or straight up contemporary romance, I decided one of the best ways to resolve the dilemma would be to dive into this genre head first and see just what all the fuss is about. Among all the books that were available, If You Stay grabbed my attention with an absolutely stunning male POV opening chapter that dared me *not* to keep going.

It also doesn't hurt that I've always been a sucker for a bad boy, and they don't come much badder (yet still redeemable) then Pax. Is there anything this guy doesn't do? You'll need to read to find out, but with the level of "Whoa, wait a minute. This is the hero?" that the first chapter of this novel injects into the story, my curiosity was definitely piqued.

Ultimately, If You Stay is a tale of love, loss and redemption. To find out whether it works, keep reading...

(Summary from GoodReads)
24-year old Pax Tate is an asshole.


He’s a tattooed, rock-hard bad-boy with a bad attitude to match.

But he’s got his reasons.

His mother died when Pax was seven, leaving a hole in his heart filled with guilt although he doesn’t understand why. What he does know is that he and his dad are left alone and with more issues than they can count.

As Pax grew up, he tried to be the kid his father always wanted; the perfect golden boy, but it didn’t work. His dad couldn’t overcome his grief long enough to notice and Pax couldn’t keep up the impossible perfect fa├žade.

So he slipped far, far from it.

Now, he uses drugs and women to cope with the ugliness, the black void that he doesn’t want to deal with. If he pretends that the emptiness isn’t there, then it isn’t, right?

And it’s never more apparent than when he meets Mila.
Sweet, beautiful Mila Hill is the fresh air to his hardened frown, the beauty to his ugly heart. He doesn’t know how to not hurt her, but he quickly realizes that he’s got to figure it out because he needs her to breathe.

When memories of his mother’s death resurface from where he’s repressed them for so long, Mila is there to catch him when the guilt starts making sense. Mila is the one…the one who can save him from his broken troubled heart; from his issues, from the emptiness.

But only if he can stop being an asshole long enough to allow it.

He knows that. And he’s working on it.

But is that enough to make her stay?

Before we start: I think this may be the longest book summary that has been posted on this blog. Ever. Okay, now on with the review. ;) 

In my intro, I said that in the end If You Stay is a story of redemption, and now that we're at the meat of the review I want to make it clear that I thought it was a good one. I've heard some people complaining that (a) people cannot use drugs and not become addicted, and therefore (b) that Pax's recovery time, and the heroine's ultimate decision at the end of the book, was ridiculous. 

Well... In response to (a): while it's certainly not advised to take the kinda crap Pax uses in the novel, *ever*, the author's information *can* be legitimate. If you read the end note you find out more about her inspiration for the book, and it was something I was able to go with because I, too, have known someone in such a situation. Is it likely? Is it logical? Is it the story our governments, teachers, churches. etc. want us telling? No. But unlikely / unusual is not an alternate word for implausible. 

As for the second point, it must be remembered that while there is a theme of redemption within this novel, it is genre fiction (meaning it needs to be entertaining) and it is a romance (which means it needs a happy ending). In a different story, under a different context, aimed at a different audience, I could easily see the claim being made as valid (and on a realistic level, I still do.). However, every novel makes a promise to its readers and, to me, the promise If You Stay made to the reader was: "Let me show you how love can help someone rise up from a difficult situation, and how through acknowledging and owning the situation, that love can be made permanent.". At no time was I under the illusion that, in any way, this book was trying to tell me "Here is what happens when someone who has screwed up his life falls in love.".

There is a very important distinction, in that Pax's struggle to define and eventually defeat the things that have held him down his entire life are motivated by love, *not* healed by it. Yes, the time frame may not be completely ideal in a realistic setting, but it was right for the type of story being told. 

One thing I will complain about in If You Stay is that Courtney Cole has this odd habit of occasionally summarizing key events rather than dramatizing them through scene. This didn't destroy the book, but it did make me scratch my head and puzzle over the times this choice was made now and then.

Also, we get the beginnings of a situation for the heroine, Mila, where we know she has struggled, and continues to struggle, with her parents deaths. While we do see resolution and growth for Pax's issues, I felt that at some point Milas's were forgotten. Or at least, by the end of the novel I wasn't sure how or whether she was still coping with them. 

Pax was definitely the star of this show. The way that Courtney did his voice, his decisions, his thoughts and his actions was truly unique among bad boys. Why? Because instead of being told "he was very, very, bad..." we are dumped head first off a diving board with no ability to swim and without a life jacket. Like hitting the frigid water of a lake in the middle of winter, we are jolted into Pax's world with force and total gusto, whether we wanna be there or not. What kept the character compelling, at least for me, was that while his integrity and ambitions did shift when he met Mila, he didn't magically become "good" overnight; nor did his attitude or thoughts suddenly make him sound like someone else. He maintained his own identity throughout the novel; something I found extremely refreshing. 

The trouble with creating a character as compelling and memorable as Pax, of course, is that it can be hard to create an equal for him. Someone who can hold her own both in the story and as a narrator for the story. Alas, Mila just wasn't quite up to the task. It wasn't that she was blatantly horrible in any way. Rather, it was just that she was so totally overshadowed and outclassed (as far as the interesting-ness of Pax; she's obviously a lot more *classy* than him.). There is also the fact that I did find certain choices she made during the novel questionable. Once you set certain things up in a story, you need to make sure a reader sees why deviating from the 'rules' set for a character makes sense. That didn't happen here. 

The other issue I had with If You Stay is that, while it was interesting to spend so much time with these two characters, they did seem to live in a bubble. Where were their friends? What else was in Angel Bay aside from their houses and the Italian restaurant Mila's parents had owned? I was a little disappointed with the lack of immersion into this world because I was really into the story and I wanted to be able to reach out and touch this world more then I felt I got to. 

Warning: insta love incoming! 

Now that I have that up front for you, what I will say is that the instant *draw* between these two was something I was willing to buy into. Why? Because she saved his life, and sometimes people can do really strange things when someone intervenes when they've hit rock bottom. I admire the fact that Courtney did *try* to control the speed of things a little, and I understand she didn't want to bog her plot down over this issue since this novel was a very tightly sealed nut (we really don't get a lot of meandering subplots here). But when it comes off strong, insta love is something I like to give my readers a heads up about, so it is what it is. 

On the plus side, I did feel that Mila and Pax had terrific chemistry and I loved reading about their interactions with each other. I had no trouble getting behind the whole 'good girl, bad guy' vibe going on. In real life, I wouldn't touch this with a ten foot pole, but in fiction? Why not? I'm certainly not going to confuse fantasy and reality, nor do I honestly fear most readers are going to lose track of that distinction. 

Now, as I said in the character section, there was one situation where Mila's reaction *did* make me want to throw my kindle. Oh! And Pax has one of the best grovels (that moment where the hero knows he has screwed up, huge, and wants to make it better) that I've ever read. Because (1) it was well written and believable, and (2) he proved himself to be the real deal, and not just full of hot air. 

If You Stay is one of those novels that I started and then totally devoured. I really loved a lot of things about it, despite the fact that I was reading it for research and did, therefore, pick up on things that did not work for me. If you are into new adult and haven't read If You Stay, though, do yourself a favor and give this book a go. 


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