Well, I just finished What I Was by Meg Rosoff and I find myself a bit underwhelmed. I wanted this book to be great and it ended up being interesting, but not as great as I had expected. On the one hand, there were lots of important/interesting topics in this book – gender, class, sexuality, coming of age/coming into one’s own, the passing of time – but on the other hand, I wasn’t really in love with the characters and I guessed the plot twist early on, spoiling the surprise for myself.
The plot: Our narrator, an upper middle class boy named Hilary, gets sent to his third boarding school and, while there, meets a boy, Finn, living in a shack by the sea without adults. They become friends in secret, with Hilary sneaking off any chance he can get to see Finn. Finn works hard; Hilary admires him. Then their friendship become painfully public after the plot twist. This is ultimately the story of a friendship and of adolescent identity formation.
The author was successful in making me think about issues of identity (particularly of the gender/sexuality/class sorts). Hilary seems to just be floating, lost and bored, through life until he meets Finn. Finn teaches Hilary masculinity, maturity, and independence. Hilary is clearly disillusioned with his upper middle class lifestyle and embraces Finn’s (romanticized) hardscrabble life of subsistence. Hilary feels a deep admiration of Finn, which almost borders on romantic feelings, though this book does not go there. As a result of his encounters with Finn, then, Hilary’s gender, class, and sexuality are all challenged and in some ways drastically changed. It was nice to see Hilary, the slacker rich boy, learn to care about something and grow from that caring.
However, Finn was pretty inaccessible as a character, as he rarely spoke and mostly worked hard. It was hard for me to admire him as much as Hilary did and as a result it was more difficult to understand the enormity of the impact Finn had on Hilary’s life and identity. Also, guessing the plot twist was disappointing and I got a little impatient with the story as a result.
It seems that I may have picked up the wrong Meg Rosoff book as I hear far more great things about How I Live Now (after I go back and re-read the review and comments that got What I Was onto my TBR list). If the good parts of What I Was are present and improved upon in How I Live Now, then it would certainly be worth a shot. This book, however, will not make my list of favorites.
P.S. In looking around the internet, I think this has been received as a YA book. My library classified it as adult fiction and I could see reasons for shelving it in either category. I think, however, that this is the sort of thing that might be more jarring and interesting to a younger person than myself (I am thinking in the 5th-8th grade range) and would be a very teachable book.
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