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What I Wasby Meg Rosoff
Synopses & Reviews
A piercing, magical story about a life-altering friendship.
Toward the end of his life, H looks back on the relationship that has shaped and obsessed him for nearly a century. It began many years earlier at St. Oswald's, a dismal boarding school on the coast of England, where the young H came face-to-face with an almost unbearably beautiful boy living by himself at the edge of the sea.
At first, the mysterious Finn appears to have no past — his home is an ancient fisherman's hut with a woodstove, a case of books, striped blankets, and a cat.
H insinuates his way into Finn's life, stalking him with perfect patience until an unlikely friendship is kindled; a confused idyll of devotion and longing set against a background of blazing wood fires and fishing expeditions.
Their friendship deepens, offering H both the freedom and the human connection that has always eluded him. But in a world of conformity, can one eccentric idyll be allowed to survive?
"Former YA author Rosoff delivers an affecting buddy story about two adolescent boys in 1960s Britain. An unnamed man recounts his time as a disgruntled student at St. Oswald's boarding school; upon ditching an outdoor physical education class jog, he stumbles upon a mysterious fellow teen named Finn who lives alone and off the grid in a hut by the sea. The protagonist, enraptured by his newfound friend, makes it his business to spend as much time as possible with Finn, a major challenge considering school curfews and that the hut can only be accessed during low tide. Weeks go by and Finn falls ill, setting the stage for a surprising revelation that will dramatically transform both boys. Rosoff's unconventional coming-of-age tale is elegantly crafted, though some readers might be turned off by the narrator's unrelenting cynicism (particularly in his handling of another Oswald schoolboy), and the warning shots the narrator fires off about global warming are unnecessary. Nonetheless, Rosoff elegantly portrays how we often become who we need to be." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"A100-year-old man, sometime in the middle of the 21st century, is rowed in a boat by an affectionate godson somewhere off East Anglia. It is not the same coastline he remembers from when he was a kid. The man has made a lifelong and distinguished study of coasts, how they shift and what that means, and the story he tells occurred long ago on land that is now underwater. He remembers... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) being taken, as a sad 16-year-old boy, to the horrible St. Oswald's boarding school — his third school. His father is disgusted by his son's performance in life so far. St. Oswald's is drafty, the food is awful, the teachers incompetent or perhaps just shellshocked from World War II. His roommates, Barrett, Gibbon and Reese, appear to be barbarians or worse. But there are three much greater things wrong with St. Oswald's: the utter irrelevance of the education (Greek and Latin that seem drudgery at best, torture at worst), the plethora of written and unwritten rules (how to walk across quads, whether to button your blazer) and, most desperately, the lack of love, affection and meaning. The narrator has been cursed with a name not suitable for a boy: Hilary. Because of that, his small stature and his unassuming looks, he has learned early in life to fight savagely, and he doesn't give more than a passing thought to being fair. When Reese develops a bit of a crush on him, it only adds to the torture. Hilary's loathing — for himself and everyone else he knows — is cosmic. Outside the walls of St. Oswald's, another world goes on, and has been going on for eons. The Romans were here, centuries ago, and built a sturdy fort that crumbled off the cliffs and still exists, underwater. There's a bustling fishing village with a daily market a mile or two away and off the coastline a low-lying island, where a string of deserted fishing shacks still huddle in a shambling row, 'mostly locked up and rotting, with blacked-out windows.' The island is barely more than a glorified sandbar, and the inexorable sea tides make it entirely inaccessible. (Anyone who ever read 'Tides of Mont St. Michel' knows that once those tides come into a story, somebody's bound to be a goner before the end.) But this morning, on a forced run with a flock of unattractive schoolboys, Hilary fakes an injury and lies down in the sand. He is fatefully interrupted. A strange boy asks him what he's doing there. Hilary remembers: 'He looked impossibly familiar, like a fantasy version of myself, with the face I had always hoped would look back at me from a mirror. The bright, flickering quality of his skin reminded me of the surface of the sea. He was almost unbearably beautiful and I had to turn away, overcome with pleasure and longing and a realization of life's desperate unfairness.' For those familiar with sandbanks and impossible freedom, it will come as no surprise that his name is Finn. Hilary shamelessly asks for a drink. Finn, after some hesitation, invites him into a fisherman's shack, where he evidently lives alone. There's a wood stove, a little cot or couch, a tiny section that serves as a kitchen, and a stairway leading to a loft where Finn sleeps. Finn says very little. He doesn't have to. While Hilary thinks and jabbers and analyzes, Finn merely lives his life. He has his lobster and crab pots; he fishes and sells his wares at the nearby market; he makes extra money stacking boxes for a lady merchant (who tells fortunes in her spare time). All this Hilary will find out later, but not only is he immediately dead-in-love with Finn, he also sees another, lovely, ancient and authentic life, the antithesis of all he's forced to learn at St. Oswald's: He sees the way East Anglian people have lived since Roman times and before. His attachment is not sexual, but it is deeply, platonically romantic. He lives only to be in the company of Finn, who teaches him to row, to fish, to look at his life. The fortune-telling merchant tells him, 'Look more carefully,' and indeed, Hilary's senses fill up with two separate lives: his school existence and the glimmering time he spends with Finn. Hilary knows joy, beauty, exaltation, but he's just a kid and he screws up terribly. Those inexorable tides come into play. This whole novel is built on a surprise (which caught me totally unaware), but beyond the surprise lies the beauty of what it means to live without junk in your life, only essential beauty, together with the reminder that all of it — the junk and the beauty — will be gone in a twinkling. This is a lovely book." Reviewed by Carolyn See, who may be reached at www.carolynsee.com, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"An extraordinary account of an obsessive friendship between a prep-school misfit and a beautiful orphan....Great Expectations meets Death in Venice in this visceral, intensely surprising tale from Rosoff." Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
"Rosoff...creates a coming-of-age tale full of mystery and angst. Relying on a narrator looking back at his life, the reader is in for an intriguing read. Recommended." Library Journal
"Rosoff writes with startling acuity...this anguished story is sure to attract a crossover audience of older teens, as well as adults, who will appreciate Rosoff's questions about the nature of time, memory, and the events that become, over a life's arc, the defining moments." Booklist (Starred Review)
"[A] richly patterned work about secrets, what the tide hides and reveals and how an innocent crush can utterly change everything." People
"There is magic, power and mystery in the novel, without anyone ever waving a wand." San Francisco Chronicle
"What I Was shows us a more confident author whose poetry lies in her elegant, straightforward descriptions of human activity...instead of lurid embellishment....[A] beautifully crafted tale that seems, like its protagonist, both enduringly old and fluently new." Los Angeles Times
"[Rosoff's] portrayal of adolescent awakening is intimate and thoroughly persuasive." Boston Globe
Set in the 1960s at an English boarding school, this novel chronicles an unlikely friendship between two boys and a scandal that shatters the idyll that has shielded and nurtured their relationship.
Finn was a beautiful orphan. H was a prep school misfit. On a September afternoon many years ago they met on a beach on the coast of England, near the ancient fisherman's hut Finn was squatting in with his woodstove, a case of books, a striped blanket and a cat. H insinuates his way into Finn's life — his blazing wood fires and fishing expeditions. Their friendship deepens, offering H the freedom and human connection that has always eluded him. But all too soon the idyll of their relationship is shaken by a heart-wrenching scandal.
What I Was is the unforgettable story of H at the end of his life looking back on this friendship, which has shaped and obsessed him for nearly a century.
About the Author
Meg Rosoff was born in Boston and had careers in publishing and advertising before she moved to London in 1989, where she lives now with her husband and daughter.
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