What I Was: A Novel

Paperback | December 30, 2008

byMeg Rosoff

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From the 2016 recipient of the Astrid Lindgren award and author of international bestseller  How I Live Now, National Book Award finalist Picture Me Gone, and most recently Jonathan Unleashed

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.

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From the 2016 recipient of the Astrid Lindgren award and author of international bestseller  How I Live Now, National Book Award finalist Picture Me Gone, and most recently Jonathan UnleashedFinn 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...

Meg Rosoff grew up in Boston and worked in advertising for fifteen years before writing her first novel, How I Live Now, which has sold more than one million copies in thirty-six territories. It won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, the Printz Award, was short-listed for the Orange Prize and made into a film. Her subsequent five n...

other books by Meg Rosoff

How I Live Now
How I Live Now

Paperback|Apr 11 2006

$9.99

Jonathan Unleashed
Jonathan Unleashed

Paperback|Jul 5 2016

$24.89 online$24.95list price
What I Was
What I Was

Paperback|Feb 10 2009

$11.93 online$11.95list price
see all books by Meg Rosoff
Format:PaperbackDimensions:224 pages, 7.7 × 5 × 0.5 inPublished:December 30, 2008Publisher:Penguin Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0452290236

ISBN - 13:9780452290235

Appropriate for ages: 13 - 17

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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.

Bookclub Guide

INTRODUCTIONIn the mid-twenty-first century, an elderly man named Hilary looks back through the decades to his days at St. Oswald’s, a dreary English boarding school. Though the school and much of the coastline around it have since slipped into the sea, Hilary’s memories of that time and place are vivid. A low-achiever kicked out of two previous schools, Hilary suspected that St. Oswald’s, like the others, would offer nothing more than bourgeois manners and gory lessons from the Dark Ages. Surviving its rigid routines and joyless days would be a matter of will. When he encounters a strange young boy named Finn, however, everything changes. Hilary is immediately fascinated with Finn’s solo life in an ancient hut by the sea, free of rules, family obligations and the indignities Hilary routinely suffers at the hands of his schoolmates. Finn is not just free—he is practically living in another era. He fishes and kayaks, reads history books, and cooks his own meals. Finn, who has no hospital or school records, does not exist to the rest of the world. To Hilary, he is the center of the universe.The two boys develop an unusual friendship, with Hilary risking his school career to sneak away to Finn’s hut whenever possible. Hilary does everything he can to protect his secret life, even when it means hurting the one schoolmate who seems to like him. In his refuge from St. Oswald’s, he learns survival skills, and for the first time, the adult responsibilities that come with caring about someone else.Precarious as the coastline itself, Hilary’s fantasy world cannot last. His lies to teachers and students eventually catch up with him. The vast differences between Hilary and Finn—less perceptible in the hut than in the outside world—ultimately tear them apart.Meg Rosoff’s third novel enchants readers with its lyrical prose, engaging storytelling, and profound insight. An astute observer of the human heart, Rosoff captures the rush and the cruelty of adolescent desire and the imprint it leaves on a person. What I Was is an unusual coming-of-age story that examines the fluidity of identity and the ways in which people consciously redefine themselves in the face of love. ABOUT MEG ROSOFFMeg Rosoff was born in Boston and moved to London in 1989, where she lives now with her husband and daughter. Formerly a YA author, Meg has earned numerous prizes, including the highest American and British honors for YA fiction: the Michael L. Printz Award and the Carnegie Medal. A movie based on her first novel, How I Live Now, is in development with Passion Pictures. DISCUSSION QUESTIONSHilary participates in a bet with his classmates that he won’t last three terms at St. Oswald’s school. What distinguishes him from the other boys at St. Oswald’s and what keeps him from fitting in? Hilary’s world at boarding school is confining, cold, and at times, brutal. Finn’s world, despite its physical dangers and harsh economic reality, seems liberating to Hilary. Is he romanticizing Finn’s life or is Finn’s life truly freer? On first glimpse, Hilary is struck immediately by the mysterious figure of Finn on the beach and describes the vision as looking into the mirror at someone he’d always hoped to be. What does Finn represent to Hilary and how is it different from Hilary’s own image of himself? How are they similar? As the older Hilary looks back on his life, he evokes an image of himself that is at once sharply insightful, darkly cynical, and, at times, naïve. What are some of his blind spots? What does he see as an adult that he could not see as a teenager? The reader has little access to Finn’s thoughts throughout the novel. What do you think Finn gets out of his relationship with Hilary? From Hilary’s perspective, formal schooling is mostly useless and serves only to cement students’ social status and privileges. Finn, on the other hand, is self-taught. What sort of education does Hilary get from his adventures with Finn? Hilary often complains about the constant and needy presence of his schoolmate Reese. What is Reese’s role in this story? What, if anything, does he teach Hilary? Hilary is interested in the history of the land and the book is strewn with descriptions of the changing coastline and tides. What is the significance of these passages? How does Hilary’s idea of history change over time? At the book’s climax, Finn reveals that he’s not who Hilary thought he was. Was Hilary responsible for failing to see the real Finn? Would Hilary have been as infatuated with Finn had he known the truth all along? Hilary is ultimately found not guilty of any crimes. Is he guilty of any moral offenses? Or are the events of the novel simply a result of him being confused and young? Hilary is consumed with the desire to be Finn, and little-by-little he transforms himself in Finn’s image. To what extent is identity shaped by close relationships like these? Has Hilary’s identity changed by the end of the story?

Editorial Reviews

“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