Meg Rosoff’s “What I Was”

January 19, 2008 at 5:14 am (Galleys, Young Adult Fiction)

On the back of the galley for Meg Rosoff’s “What I Was” is this line: “Advance Reading Copy for media, booksellers and bloggers” – the first time I have seen bloggers mentioned in the media disclaimer on an ARC. So, because Random House invited it, here are my thoughts:

After reading “How I Live Now” and “Just in Case”, I became fully conscious of the fact that Meg Rosoff is one of the most original voices in contemporary YA literature, topped only by the inestimable Markus Zusak. She has a wonderful skill at writing sentences that alternate seamlessly between lyric flow and knife-sharp edges. Her ideas are fascinating and she expresses them with wit and intelligence, having faith that her readers (though young) are neither unaware nor uninterested, and will explore such varying themes as sexuality, identity, war, and destiny, along with her.

That being said, in almost every respect other than her gorgeous writing style (which is as finely tuned and haunting as ever), “What I Was” failed to captivate me and, I thought, didn’t approach the brilliance of her previous two novels. For one thing, I found myself unable to connect with any of the characters, who I thought for the most part were difficult to know well. The un-named narrator is cold, and without the “swift, incisive” opinions he insists he has. Finn… well Finn is surprising. I won’t lie and say I saw that development coming (I didn’t, at all), but I did find it rather weird. The pitiable Reese is probably the most clearly developed character, completely memorable for his social weakness and lingering presence, and his mouth “opening and closing like a fish”.

I also did not love the name of the book, which I found rather dull and not very exciting. I just didn’t think we were any closer at the end of the book to understanding “what” the narrator “was”. For all that they are not really a part of the story (and many may think I am making too much of a small matter here), interesting titles are crucial. Aside from the marketing power of a gripping title, those are the first few words in which you have the chance to say something about the tale that is coming. There’s an immense satisfaction in reading a book through to the end, and realizing that the title is perfectly suited to what you have just read. Somewhere near the middle of this book, the narrator catches a glimpse of Finn and, in his head, calls him “my boy king”. Now wouldn’t that have been some title?

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2 Comments

  1. Sherryl said,

    I agree with you about the title of ‘What I Was’ – I thought it implied that the book was a sequel to ‘How I Live Now’, which it isn’t. Your suggestion of ‘My Boy King’ is great.
    I did really like ‘What I Was’ (did not like ‘Just In Case’ at all!!) despite the cold characters. I liked that the narrator had to find his own way of living, even if it was a bit weird, and that Finn helped him to realise he would always be an outsider. Trying to fit in can kill a person, literally or spiritually – choosing to live your own life, no matter what, is a big step.
    It seems to be a theme of Rosoff’s, doesn’t it? And you are right about her voice too – very different and engaging for the reader.

  2. bethfehlbaum said,

    Hey, there! I am a young adult fiction author. My debut novel, Courage in Patience, is being published by Kunati Books in September. It goes on sale on Amazon and Barnes & Noble next month, though, and I am in the process of setting up a blog tour beginning in March.
    PLEASE check out my site, http://courageinpatience.blogspot.com and let me know if you would be interested in hosting me on one of my stops! I would LOVE to get to know your teen readers because I know they will enjoy Courage in Patience.
    Anyone who hosts me in my blog tour will have their name put in a hat for an autographed copy of Courage in Patience. Please e-mail me at beth@bethfehlbaum.com, if you would like to talk about my tour.
    Thanks!
    Beth Fehlbaum

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