The Center of the World

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Seventeen-year-old Phil has felt like an outsider as long as he can remember. All Phil has ever known about his father is that he was Number Three on his mother’s long list—third in a series of affairs that have set Phil’s family even further apart from the critical townspeople across the river. As for his own sexuality, Phil doesn’t care what the neighbors will think; he’s just waiting for the right guy to come along.

But Phil can’t remain a bystander forever. Not when he’s ...

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The Center of the World

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Seventeen-year-old Phil has felt like an outsider as long as he can remember. All Phil has ever known about his father is that he was Number Three on his mother’s long list—third in a series of affairs that have set Phil’s family even further apart from the critical townspeople across the river. As for his own sexuality, Phil doesn’t care what the neighbors will think; he’s just waiting for the right guy to come along.

But Phil can’t remain a bystander forever. Not when he’s surrounded by his mother, Glass, who lives by her own rules and urges Phil to be equally strong; his sister, Dianne, who is abrupt and willful, with secrets to share; his uncle Gable, a restless mariner, defined by his scars; his best friend, Kat, who is generous but possessive. And finally, there is distant Nicholas, with whom Phil falls overwhelmingly in love—until he faces the ultimate betrayal and must finally find his worth . . . and place in the world.

From the Hardcover edition.

As he works through his often difficult relationships with his single mother, distant twin sister, his first boyfriend, and an odd assortment of friends, a teenage boy learns about the wounds and healing brought by love.

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Editorial Reviews

Children's Literature
Seventeen-year-old Phil lives with his twin sister, Dianne, and mother, Glass, in an old castle in a small German town. The father he has never met—and knows little to nothing about—remains in America. Glass's promiscuous sexual behavior makes the children targets of the neighborhood bullies' taunts and jeers and relegates them to the role of outsiders in the community. Phil is befriended by Kat, the daughter of the school headmaster, who is willful, proud, and possessive. When Phil falls in love with the new boy, Nicholas, Kat supports the relationship but soon finds herself falling for Nicholas' charms. In order to nurse and ultimately heal the wounds that result from the love triangle, Phil must decide what is most important to him, accept his own self-worth, and become a more active participant in his life. This novel is rich and multilayered with several interwoven stories that take the reader backward and forward in time, weaving a complex story of love, betrayal, and family connection. As Phil reveals and reflects upon his relationships with those around him—his sister, his mother, his seafaring uncle, his adult friends, his lover, his enemies, even his absent father—we are pushed and pulled through time and given the opportunity to bear witness to his coming of age. Through vivid detail that creates a lingering sense of place, the family home—Visible—assumes character-like status in the novel. Originally published in Hamburg, Germany in 1998, the novel rightfully earned the Buxtehuder Bulle Prize for Best Young Adult Novel in Germany and was short-listed for the German Children's Literature Award. 2005, Delacorte, Ages 14 to 18.
—WendyGlenn, Ph.D.
Seventeen-year-old Glass journeys from America to Europe to reunite with her older sister, Stella. Glass is nine months pregnant. Upon arriving at Visible, Stella's vast mansion estate, Glass gives birth to twins and learns that her sister is dead. Fast-forward seventeen years-the twins, Phil and Dianne, have grown up at Visible with their unconventional, promiscuous mother, and they have survived an interesting but isolated life, all but shunned by the townspeople for being the evil spawn of the town tramp. Now Phil and Dianne are attempting to carve out their own places in the world and readers are treated to their transformations and tribulations through Phil's eyes. The present is also peppered with scenes from the past-episodes that helped to form who Phil has become and who he aspires to be. This book is certainly for older readers, not only because of its subject matter, which includes Phil's sexual encounters with his first boyfriend, Dianne's involvement in Glass's miscarriage, and Glass's own escapades. The story is also multilayered and complex, carrying the reader from past to present and from scene to scene with a sophistication that would be lost to most younger readers. This same sophistication helps to make for quite a long book. Reminiscent in some ways of Aidan Chambers's Postcards from No Man's Land (Dutton, 2002) because of its foreign locale, maturity, and rich language, this title might have a limited audience but will be a satisfying read for those who choose to tackle it. VOYA CODES: 4Q 2P S A/YA (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses; For the YA with a special interest in the subject; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12; Adult-marketed bookrecommended for Young Adults). 2005, Delacorte, 480p., and PLB Ages 15 to Adult.
—Kimberly Paone
School Library Journal
Gr 9 Up-Phil, 17, and his twin, Dianne, live at Visible, a decrepit Gothic mansion in a tiny, provincial German town. Their mother, Glass, 34, is unwed, promiscuous, and self-involved, and she doesn't give a damn about what anyone thinks of her or her children. Dianne is withdrawn and secretive, and communicates better with animals than with people. Unapologetically gay, Phil worries about everyone else's dramas and drives. He daydreams about his American father, of whom Glass refuses to speak. He's too passive to approach gorgeous Nicholas, so he's thrilled when the other boy takes the lead. They meet often for wordless sex, but Phil craves intimacy. When he includes his feisty friend, Katja, in their shenanigans, jealousy and betrayal ensue. Phil's narrative shifts from even, detached present-tense action to minute recollections of, seemingly, every day since his birth. Steinh fel's female characters are vivid and fascinating, as is Phil when featured in the endless stories he tells about them. Nicholas, however, is so shallow and flatly drawn that it calls Phil's own depth into question. The author has an expert feel for setting, and Visible and its jungle gardens are lushly rendered. While the mysterious mood holds interest, the lulling pace, repetitive detail, and intrusive time shifts derail the plot. Phil's arc from self-pitying bystander to active participant in his own drama is anticlimactic, considering the length of his confessional. Enthusiastic, sophisticated readers, if patient, will be kidnapped by the lyrical, literate prose.-Johanna Lewis, New York Public Library Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
In this hazy, fairytale-like, tome-sized import from Germany, 17-year-old Phil shares a secluded, run-down castle with his outcast mom and estranged twin sister. Longing for male companionship, fatherless Phil stumbles upon dark-eyed, distant star-runner Nicholas, with whom he immediately falls head over heels in love. To his surprise, Nicholas makes the first blunt move in their seduction, and what begins with this meeting leads to further sexual encounters, trysts that are purely physical, leaving Phil emotionally empty and wary of Nicholas's true intentions. Beautifully written and circularly lyrical, Steinhofel's first US release balances Phil's pained past and burgeoning present with insightfully parallel images that are full of well-drawn, interconnected, non-didactic metaphors that also manage to carry the story. Unfortunately, the overwhelmingly huge page count will no doubt kill most teen appeal. And, given the meandering quality of storytelling-especially when the more titillating parts are cut short and replaced with flashbacks from Phil's troubled history-only the most determined teen reader will make it to the end, but not necessarily without reward. (Fiction. YA)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385902663
  • Publisher: Random House Children's Books
  • Publication date: 5/10/2005
  • Format: Library Binding
  • Pages: 480
  • Age range: 14 - 17 Years
  • Product dimensions: 5.68 (w) x 8.54 (h) x 1.39 (d)

Meet the Author

Andreas Steinhöfel is the author of numerous award-winning books for children and young adults. He lives in Berlin, Germany.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt

I never even saw most of the men Glass had affairs with. They used to come to Visible late at night, when Dianne and I were fast asleep. Then doors would slam and unknown voices would penetrate our dreams. In the morning we used to find telltale signs of their existence: a warm mug of hastily gulped coffee abandoned on the kitchen table; a toothbrush wrapper in the bathroom, crumpled carelessly and dropped on the floor. Sometimes it was no more than a sleepy aroma hanging in the air like a strange shadow.
Once it was the telephones. Dianne and I had spent the weekend with Tereza, and when we got home, there were the phones in our bedrooms, connected to newly laid cables, and the plaster still damp on the walls. Glass had pulled an electrician.
“Now each of us has our own phone,” she stated smugly, with Dianne on her left arm and me on her right. “Isn’t that fantastic? Don’t you think it’s terribly American?”

I’m sprawled on my bed when the telephone rings. The July heat has wiped me out--even at night it crawls through the rooms and passages like a tired animal, looking for a place to bed down. I know who it is--I’ve been waiting for this call for the past three weeks. Kat (her name is Katja, but apart from her parents and some of the teachers, no one calls her by her full name) is back from holiday.
“I’m back again, Phil,” she shrieks down the line.
“Sounds like it. How was it?”
“A nightmare, and stop grinning, I can tell you are! I’m suffering from parental abuse, and that island was the absolute pits, you can’t imagine. I want to see you.”
I look at my watch. “In half an hour on the castle hill?”
“I’d have died if you’d said no.”
“Join the club. I’ve been bored out of my mind the last three weeks.”
“Listen, I need a bit, longer--about an hour? I’ve got to unpack.”
“No problem.”
“Can’t wait to see you. . . . Phil?”
“I missed you.”
“Didn’t miss you.”
“Thought so. Asshole!”
I put down the phone and stay lying on my back, blinking at the blinding white ceiling for the next quarter of an hour. The scent of cypress comes wafting in waves on the summer breeze through the open windows. I roll over and get out of the sweaty bed, grab boxer shorts and T-shirt, and pad along the creaking floorboards in the passage to the shower.
I hate the bathroom on this floor of the house. The door frame is so warped, you have to lean against the door with all your weight to get it open. Inside, you’re met with broken black and white tiles, cracks in the ceiling, and flaking plaster. The antiquated plumbing takes three minutes before the water finally comes through. In the winter, the rusty boiler connected to it comes to life only after you’ve given it several hefty kicks. I turn on the tap, hear the familiar wheezing of the system, and once again regret that Glass never got involved with a plumber.
“For the sake of the plumbing?” she asked in astonishment when I once suggested how practical such a relationship could be. “What d’you take me for, darling--a hooker?”

Visible’s architect must have been just as crazy as my aunt Stella, who discovered the house, already then in an advanced state of disrepair, a quarter of a century ago while on a trip to Europe. She fell in love with its southern charm, quite uncharacteristic of this part of the world, and promptly bought it. For peanuts, my little chick, she proudly wrote to Glass in America. I’ve even got some money left over for the essential repairs!
Stella was financially independent. Hers had been the classic career path of the American high school beauty, not thinking about the future until it was almost over and done with--early marriage, early divorce, overdue but relatively generous alimony payments. The money wasn’t enough for Stella to live in great style, but it allowed for a life more or less free of financial worries. It was enough to buy Visible.
Surrounded by an extensive plot of land, Stella wrote, the house stood on a hill overlooking the edge of a tiny town on the other side of the river. The two-story façade with its colonnaded porch, the tiny bay windows and the tall casement windows, the innumerable gables and the battlemented roof were visible for all to see from a distance of miles. Seeking to give it an appropriately American name, she quite logically called the entire estate--the house, with its outhouses and garden sheds at the rear, as well as the huge garden bordering the wood, where life-sized statues of discolored sandstone stood about like lost souls--by the name Visible. It soon became evident that the money left over from the purchase was barely enough to cover the merest fraction of the renovation costs. The masonry was crumbling, the roof leaked in several places, and the garden was a jungle.
In its dilapidated state, Visible seems to be waiting and dreaming of better times, wrote Stella in one of her increasingly rare letters to Boston. And the residents of the town seem to be waiting too. They don’t like this house. The tall windows scare them. And d’you know why, little one? Because you only have to see these windows from afar to know and feel they call for a broader view of the world.
I grew up with photos of Stella, countless snaps that Glass had dug out from her sister’s papers a few months after her death and put up all around the house. They are everywhere: in the dark entrance hall, up the staircase, in almost every room. In their cheap frames they hang there like kitschy religious images, propped up on wobbly chests of drawers and tables, crowding on windowsills and window seats.
My favorite portrait of Stella shows her angular suntanned face. She had large, clear eyes and a lot of laugh lines. It’s the only photo where my aunt looks soft and vulnerable. All the other pictures show a mixture of childish defiance and stormy provocation. These make Stella look like glowing steel tempered in fire.
Three days before Glass arrived at Visible, my aunt Stella’s broad view on the world proved her undoing. She was cleaning the windows on the second floor when she fell to the drive below, where the postman found her next day. With her head resting on one arm and her legs slightly drawn up, she looked as if she was asleep. She had broken her neck. Later Glass found the cable she herself had wired from on board ship, and the draft of a reply her older, only sister had been unable to send. Baby, looking forward to you and your offspring. Love, Stella.
Stella’s death affected Glass deeply. She had idolized her sister, even after she had left America. Their mother had died young of the Big C, as Glass put it, and their father had shown more interest in alcohol than in the fate of his daughters. The fact that both of them disappeared to Europe was met with drunken indifference. No one knew what had become of him. Once when I asked Glass about my grandfather, her curt reply was that the continent of America had swallowed him, and she hoped it would not spew him up again. After her initial mourning over Stella, she adopted a pragmatic attitude to her death. One of her favorite sayings was “As one door closes, another opens.”

From the Hardcover edition.

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  • Posted November 10, 2008

    I Fell in Love.

    I loved this book so much, i had two quotes from it tattooed on myself. I have read the book multiple times, and recommend it to everyone i know. It makes me cry, it teaches me something new every time I read it, reveals something to me. Through highschool, I read the book all the time, no book as ever spoken to me, reached out to me, touched me, saved me, the way this book has.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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