Narrated from seventeen-year-old protagonist Mia Hall’s first-person point of view, If I Stay opens with a line that foreshadows the book’s inciting incident: looking back, Mia comments that everyone thinks it was because of the snow.
The narration switches to the present tense. Mia wakes on a February morning to a thin blanket of snow on her lawn. She lives in Oregon, where even a little snow is enough to cancel school. Mia’s brother Teddy is excited that school is canceled. Mia’s father is an English teacher, meaning he also has the day off. Since neither Mia, Teddy, nor their father has to go to school, Mia’s mother phones the travel agency where she works to say she isn’t coming in.
Mia’s mother tells Mia that Mia’s boyfriend Adam and his band, Shooting Star, are in the newspaper. Mia leafs through the paper to the calendar section, where there is a small writeup about how Adam’s band is on tour with a more popular band called Bikini. The article doesn’t mention that Shooting Star sold out a Seattle club the night before.
Mia reveals that she is a cellist, and recently auditioned for the prestigious Juilliard music school. She worries that if she is accepted, it will create more complications in her relationship with Adam. While Mia’s mother cooks pancakes, Mia and her father discuss going out for the day; they plan to visit family friends Henry and Willow, stop at BookBarn, then go to Mia’s grandparents for an early dinner.
The family piles into their rusty Buick, with Mia’s father behind the wheel. The family argues over which radio station to listen to, deciding on classical music while Teddy listens to a Spongebob CD on a portable disc player. The family begins driving. Mia closes her eyes and imagines herself playing along to Beethoven’s Cello Sonata no. 3. She is happy to be in a warm car with her family.
The narration jumps ahead to after the collision. The Buick has been destroyed by a four-ton pickup truck going sixty miles an hour plowing into the passenger side. Tiny flames of spilled gas burn on the wet road. Mia is surprised that the radio is still playing after such a horrific crash. Mia is standing in a ditch at the side of the road. She looks at the car, which has been emptied of its passengers. She sees her Dad first; pieces of his brain lie on the asphalt. Her mother’s lips are blue and her eyes are red, full of blood. Mia finds her own body next: she is lying on the ground, blood from her chest seeps onto the snow, and her leg is broken, the bone exposed. She doesn’t understand what is happening. She screams into the air but her breath doesn’t condense. She pinches her wrist but can’t wake up. She can still hear the music though, which she focuses on until she hears sirens.
Mia wonders if she is dead as she watches paramedics, police and firefighters deal with the crash site, discussing how her family members died. Mia sees her own body being frantically attended to by paramedics. She is embarrassed to see her shirt ripped open and her breast exposed. Mia hears a medic with freckles and red hair announce that Mia is in a coma. They load her into an ambulance.
Mia recounts her first cello recital, which she played when she was ten. Her family was musical, but she set herself apart by choosing cello as opposed to electric guitar. She comments that her Dad used to joke that she was switched at the hospital as a baby. Mia says always felt like she was different from the rest of her family. Mia got stage fright before the recital, but her Dad, who used to play in bands, tells her that you never get over the jitters of anxiety, you just work through them. After the recital, her parents give Mia her own cello.
The novel’s retrospective opening line signals to the reader that even though most of the book is in the present tense, Mia is narrating the book from an unspecified point in the future. The opening line also establishes tension: the vagueness of the “it” that happened establishes an ominous tone of foreboding. This is an instance of dramatic irony: the reader understands something terrible is about to happen, while the family goes about their snow day, untroubled and optimistic.
The optimistic tone shifts after the crash. The happiness Mia felt in the car contrasts sharply with the horror of the smashed car and bodies. As Mia surveys the scene, taking in the startling images of her dead parents, she tries to pinch herself, as though waking herself from a dream. But she feels nothing.
When Mia sees medics attend to her own body, she realizes that her consciousness has left her body’s point of view. She wonders if she is dead, unable to comprehend that she is having an out-of-body experience; Mia has entered a liminal space between life and death.
As Mia is taken into the ambulance, the narration switches to the novel’s first past-tense recollection. The interplay of present and past timelines repeats throughout the book. This structure allows Mia to sift through her memories of her family as she deliberates over her decision whether to stay alive in a world without them.
In the memory of her first cello recital, Mia’s father gives her the advice that one never gets over the jitters of stage fright, one simply works through them. This moment introduces the motif of Mia gaining strength from memories of her parents' wisdom.