What I Was

What I Was

4.4 7
by Meg Rosoff
     
 

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Read Meg Rosoff's posts on the Penguin Blog.

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

Overview

Read Meg Rosoff's posts on the Penguin Blog.

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.

Editorial Reviews

Booklist
Rosoff writes with startling acuity about a young person's search for self and for meaningful connection... 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.
People
This is a richly patterned work about secrets, what the tide hides and reveals and how an innocent crush can utterly change everything.
San Francisco Chronicle
There is magic, power and mystery in the novel, without anyone ever waving a wand.
Washington Post
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.
Los Angeles Times
What I Was shows us a more confident author whose poetry lies in her elegant, straightforward descriptions of human activity—cooking crabs, climbing a chalk cliff, learning to sail—instead of lurid embellishment. The result is a beautifully crafted tale that seems, like its protagonist, both enduringly old and fluently new.
Boston Globe
(Rosoff's) portrayal of adolescent awakening is intimate and thoroughly persuasive.
Carolyn See
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.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

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. (Jan.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Growing up is tough to do. The narrator of Rosoff's foray into adult literature has been shuffled through two upper-class boarding schools and now is on his third. His tenure at St. Oswald's looks tenuous as well until one day during a long run along the coastline. Taking a break from the mandatory exercise, our narrator meets Finn, who lives alone in a small hut near the beach free from school and parents. The two boys come together in an idyllic friendship that eventually ends in tragedy. Rosoff, the Printz Award-winning author of How I Live Now, 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 for larger collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ9/15/07.]
—Robin Nesbitt

School Library Journal

Adult/High School- The poignant reminiscences of an old man about the life-changing experiences of his 16th year are recounted with spellbinding immediacy and evocative language. Events take place in 1962, in a boy's boarding school on the sinking coastline of East Anglia. The cynical narrator has been expelled from two other boarding schools and longs for freedom from the sadistic discipline, cruel bullying, and mind-numbing curriculum. He wants to be free like Finn, the young teen who lives alone in a fisherman's hut by the sea. For most of the book the narrator's name is withheld. Readers know only that he is lonely, self-conscious, and yearns to be strong and independent. Finn welcomes him somewhat reluctantly, but soon the two meet regularly and a deep (if one-sided) emotional attachment is formed. Finn instructs his awkward new friend in the ways of survival and the history of this remote place as they explore the sinking rugged coast with its mysterious coves and ancient forts. The narrator disregards curfew as he regularly sneaks out of St. Oswald's School, recklessly racing the incoming tides and the undertow in order to arrive at Finn's cottage. Love and friendship are a dominant theme of the book. As the narrator's obsession with Finn and Finn's romantic medieval existence deepens, he becomes insensitive to the yearning friendship of a fellow classmate, with tragic results. Readers may have suspicions as to Finn's true identity but will believe sympathetically in the narrator's naïveté and be greatly moved by his story.-Jackie Gropman, Chantilly Regional Library, Fairfax County, VA

Kirkus Reviews
An extraordinary account of an obsessive friendship between a prep-school misfit and a beautiful orphan. As the book opens, the 16-year-old narrator-unnamed until the final pages-is entering his third prep school in as many years. The latest, St. Oswald's School for Boys, on an isolated coast of England, practices a bracing rigidity that forbids heat and buttons on clothing, amongst other things. The narrator shows his disdain for the rules with apathy rather than rebellion, until the day he meets Finn on a nearby beach. The narrator is immediately intrigued by the quiet boy with impossibly perfect, delicate features, particularly when he learns that since his grandmother died four years earlier, Finn has lived autonomously in a hut on the beach. With no birth registration or immediate family, it has been easy for Finn to slip under the radar, avoiding school and society in general. The narrator's interest turns to infatuation, and soon he is sneaking out of the school to visit Finn every chance he gets, including hatching an elaborate lie that allows him to spend an entire school holiday at Finn's hut. The only stumbling block is his roommate, Reese, whose own homoerotic tendencies implore him to find out more. But the narrator's carefully constructed world crumbles when St. Oswald's goes under quarantine for glandular fever, and he passes the disease along to his secret friend. Though he tries to nurse Finn back to health, the strain becomes too much, and on a devastating night, one that implicates Reese as well, the narrator is forced to unite his two worlds, and learns that mysterious Finn has been harboring a secret of his own. Rosoff's voice is clear and her story is simple, butwith it she delivers a profound amalgamation of deeper themes. Great Expectations meets Death in Venice in this visceral, intensely surprising tale from Rosoff (Just in Case, 2006, etc.).
From the Publisher
“There is magic, power, and mystery in the novel, without anyone ever waving a wand.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
 
“A beautifully crafted tale that seems, like its protagonist, both enduringly old and fluently new.”
—Los Angeles Times
 
“This whole novel is built on a surprise. . . . 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.”
—The Washington Post
 
“A richly patterned work about secrets and how an innocent crush can utterly change everything.”
—People magazine (four stars)
 
“[Rosoff’s] portrayal of adolescent awakening is intimate and thoroughly persuasive.”
—The Boston Globe

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781101213957
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
01/24/2008
Sold by:
Penguin Group
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
224
Sales rank:
401,802
File size:
269 KB

Read an Excerpt

The sound of Finn boiling water woke me at dawn. He wasn't much for talking, especially at that hour, and wouldn't answer any conversation I initiated. Like the hut, he warmed up slowly, and I had a feeling his habit of solitude had existed for so long that it surprised him every morning to find me asleep where his granny had once lain.

It occurred to me that I had been at boarding school for a good many more years than Finn had lived alone, so perhaps my social skills were a little on the odd side as well. Whenever I was at home, I watched my mother chat brightly over breakfast the way an anthropologist might note typical social behaviour of the human species.

I hated getting up in the cold, and slept buried up to my eyes in blankets, removing them only to wrap my hands around a warm cup of tea. Finn had added sugar to mine unprompted and I turned away to hide my flush of pleasure. I knew that if I waited in bed for him to build up the fire and perform his morning tasks, the hut would gradually fill with a kind of fuggy warmth, so I lay still, savouring the familiar sounds and postponing reentry into full consciousness for as long as possible.

Nothing in my life so far compared with those first minutes of the day, half sitting in bed, still swaddled in warmth and with no imperative to move, just staring out of the window as the first pale streaks ignited the sky. I watched boats chug slowly past the windows: fishing boats returning from a long night of work, sailing boats from the nearby estuary taking advantage of the favourable tide, little tugs on their way back to port. At night passenger ships twinkled on the horizon like stars, but the daylight made them invisible.

"We'll take the dinghy," Finn said over his shoulder, heading out of the door. Through the window I watched him go, watched his outline soften and blur as he disappeared into the morning haze. The world had not yet come into focus. Even the sound of the sea seemed muffled, as if heard from a long distance away. From where I sat it was invisible, too, lost in a cloak of grey mist. I knew this moment of half-light wouldn't last, that in less than an hour daylight would have burned off the fog and restored the shape of things.

In the Dark Ages, most of life took place out of doors: the planting, herding, cooking, the buying and selling, the weddings, births, deaths, wars. In Finn's version of life in the twentieth century, not much had changed. Despite the cold, we walked and fished, lay on the beach and stared at the sunlit clouds or the stars in the night sky, pulled in the traps, messed about in boats. We walked to market with his fish or his bag of crabs and, like the Angles and Saxons, exchanged these commodities for things we didn't have—a hammer, a loaf of bread, a pair of woollen socks.

After only ten days at the hut I could appreciate the advantages of such a world, a world with nothing extra or unnecessary in it. A cooking pot, a place to sleep, a friend, a fire—what more did I require?

I loved the simple richness of our domestic life, the overlapping rhythms, the glancing contacts, the casual-seeming but carefully choreographed dance played out through the rooms of a shared house. I even learned to accept Finn's silence for what it was and not read it as a reproach. It was a lesson that has proved valuable in later life, this acceptance of another person's silence, for I am more the silence-filler sort of person, hopeless on bird-watching expeditions. Despite the effort required to adapt, I became accustomed to whole days or parts of days during which we barely spoke, just drifted side by side in what for me was a dreamy silence, filled with unspoken words that slipped out of my brain and floated up to dissipate in the cold blue sky.

I began to pick up some of Finn's jobs, shovelling sand into the latrine, fetching water from the open tank at the far end of the huts. Neither of us commented on my expanded role, but I could read expressions on Finn's face that I might not have noticed before, slight shifts of the eyes or movements of the corners of the mouth. Pleasure. Displeasure. Impatience. And very occasionally: interest. Amusement. Sometimes I believed I could chart the passage of thoughts across his face, though the content of those thoughts remained a mystery to me, as if written in another language. For the rest of my break we lived together in a boyish ideal (my boyish ideal) of perfect happiness. I became used to the feel and the taste of my own salty skin. My face turned brown from exposure all day to the April sun, and for once in my life my hair felt thick, textured with salt. There was no mirror in Finn's hut, so I could look at him and imagine myself each day growing taller and slimmer and bolder. It was a lie in ways I already suspected, and ways I hadn't yet imagined. But it made me happy, and even then I knew that happiness was something in which to plunge headlong, and damn the torpedoes. Our time together would have to end, I knew that, and knew also that the pain of leaving this place would be intolerable, like death. In all the years that followed, I have longed, sometimes quite desperately, to ask Finn about those weeks, to ask whether they were happy only for me, whether they remained vivid only in my head. I have wanted to ask whether my presence caused any change for the better. Any change at all. But I couldn't ask. It was once again the supplicant in me, the endlessly repentant me who wanted somehow to know that it had all been worthwhile, that destruction and ruin wasn't all I brought to the little house by the sea.

Meet the Author

Meg Rosoff was born in Boston, USA. She has worked in publishing, public relations and most recently advertising, but thinks the best job in the world would be head gardener for Regents Park. Meg lives in Highbury, North London. She is the author of Just in Case, What I Was and How I Live Now.

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What I Was 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
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Black_Violets More than 1 year ago
I am a big Meg Rosoff fan after reading How I Live Now but this book completely let me down. I have no problems with hard subjects or anything like that but this book seemed to drift.... the idea was great but the plot and writing was completely dull. The only thing that kept me reading was getting to the end. The end is why i gave it 2 stars instead of one. It starts out with a simple boy trying to find his way in a school he hates but the plot turns to him having some sort of crush on another boy ... this could have been great but it wasn't. If you want a good book read How I live Now by her or Just in Case and skip this one.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
harstan More than 1 year ago
H looks back over the decades to the moment that defined his life. His father determined that H was to attend St. Oswald¿s on the East Anglia coast and dumps his teenage offspring there. Having a lot of freedom prior to the drop off, H struggled with the school¿s rules and the decorum expected of him by his three roommates (Barrett, Gibbon and Reese).

Bored, the sixteen years old H wanders the nearby beach when he meets Finn, a squatter living in a ramshackle fisherman¿s hut. Finn is beautiful and alive in spite of his being an orphan whose only companions are books and a cat. H and Finn become friends doing things together like fishing, sailing, and crab cooking. However, their idyll ended with death, scandal and a police inquiry. Now eight decades later, Finn returns to East Anglia JUST IN CASE he does not know.

This engaging character study starts off a bit slow as readers share the ennui engulfing Finn. However, once Finn and H become friends, the story line accelerates into a combination buddy-coming of age drama. Well written and insightful fans will appreciate Meg Rosoff¿s fine tale of paradise found and paradise lost.

Harriet Klausner
Guest More than 1 year ago
I wasn't sure about this one, it started off a bit slow, but I'm glad I stuck with it. Soon enough it picked up. A sweet, innocent and sad coming of age story, beautifully told. The end was a surprise and I felt sad for chances and friendships lost and stories told. Moving and compelling this is a good read.