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Meg Rosoff’s What I Was Is Beautiful and Hard to Describe

May 5, 2010

What I Was by Meg Rosoff
published by Viking Adult January 24, 2008

As a very old man, Hilary finds that his mind drifts freely throughout his life, without an anchor. He decides to return to the year he was sixteen, the time he first experienced love.

We are drawn back to that year, in 1960s England. He is in a boarding school, an institution that he sees as the last bastion of the crumbling British Empire.  🙂 Having been kicked out of several boarding schools, Hilary is wise to the system, and his expectations are low. Meg Rosoff created a unique voice; Hillary is bright, edgy, and incredibly witty. He also has few delusions about himself; he doesn’t fancy himself as any sort of hero. I was quickly drawn in, and I saw slight shades of Holden Caulfield.

Hilary’s parents put him in yet another boarding school, St. Oswald’s, which lies on the crumbling coast of St. Anglia. This is a novel in which the setting is actually a full fledged character in the story. The boys at St. Oswald’s, who are generally indifferent students, enjoy medieval history because of the nasty descriptions of bloodshed, mutilation, and torture. So Hilary is aware of the multiple layers of history in this little coastal area, right down to the crumbling Roman forts. And the descriptions of the tides, the coast, and the surrounding area are remarkable. It was so vivid, I could see, smell, hear, feel, and even taste it, and at the same time, the description of the setting had a dreamlike quality.

When Hilary meets a solitary, mysterious boy named Finn, living alone in a  fishing hut, he is drawn to him, almost to the point of obsession, and he comes to love him. Finn is even more detached from the rest of the world than he is. Hilary longs to win his new friend’s approval and affection and to become part of the ebb and flow of his life.

As I read this book, I found myself drifting, unsure how I felt about it. And even now, I find it hard to describe or rate. The writing is gorgeous, the imagery is somewhat mesmerizing, and I love Hilary’s voice, especially the dry humor that sometimes made me laugh out loud. On the other hand, I never really connected with the characters. I believe this was deliberate. Both Hilary and Finn were detached from others — the difficulty I had connecting with them, oddly, kind of defines them. And Hilary was not easy to like. He was indifferent, and at times cruel, to others — there were scenes that made me cringe. I don’t see this as a defect in the novel, but it held me back from actually falling in love with this book. I liked it, admired it, and at times was blown away by it, but I didn’t love it.

Another thing I had difficulty with …


was the twist near the end of the novel when Finn was revealed to be a girl. Was there something profound in this discovery? It did turn my assumptions about Finn’s gender — and about Hilary’s sexual orientation — on its head. I rather enjoyed the author playing with gender identity in this way. And Finn’s obliviousness to this fact might have been revealing about his character — showing his self absorption or his naivety. I don’t know. At the same time I was annoyed; it felt like a gimmick. If others have read this, and have thoughts about it or any other aspect of this book, I am eager to discuss it. If you leave a spoilerish comment, please clearly mark it as such.


I will be reading more of Meg Rosoff’s books; I have a feeling her distinctive style and wit can be addictive. I really loved what Ana at Things Mean a Lot wrote about this novel — she described the aspects of this story that tugged at my gut better than I could:

What I Was is a beautiful story about love and longing and growing up. And about other things too, like memory and history and our collective blind spots. I think I enjoyed it even more than How I Live Now, and I really loved that book. There was something about the emotions Hilary was experiencing that really spoke to me. It’s a bit unsettling, but I don’t think it’s uncommon for a young person to feel strongly drawn to someone and not being sure if they want them or if they want to be them. And that’s what happens in this book. Finn symbolizes freedom, and a kind of life completely unlike Hilary’s—and for that reason, desirable despite its difficulties.

Read More Reviews: Things Mean a Lot; Big A Little A; Bart’s Bookshelf


3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 5, 2010 7:49 am

    Thank you for quoting me, Steph!

    And *spoilers warning* for the rest of this comment:

    I completely disagree that the twist was gimmicky, and I do think the revelation is very much meaningful. The fact that I never suspected it (though some readers who are cleverer than I am, more aware of gender issues, or both, told me it was completely obvious to them) says something about how many of us still see male as the default and female as an exception to the roles (even those of us who call themselves feminists, like me). Why did it never occur to me that a girl could live as Finn did? To realise that it didn’t gave me a jolt, and it’s a jolt I needed, you know?

    • May 5, 2010 12:30 pm

      I was hoping you’d stop by and share your point of view — thanks! And I think you made a good point — it’s something for me to ponder.

  2. May 5, 2010 6:06 pm

    What a great change for your blog! I absolutely love it, it looks so professional. Great job Stephanie!

    As for the book, I think that your mention of Hilary’s dry humor draws me the most to it. I always appreciate in a book.

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