What I Was, by Meg Rosoff

This YA/adult crossover title follows the classic format of a great flashback: our narrator H is reflecting at the end of his life on his relationship with a fellow youth whom he met while attending a boarding school on the coast of England in the 1960’s. Finn, a boy repeatedly described by H as “almost unbearably beautiful” and similar terms, lives alone in a dilapidated fisherman’s hut with only a cat for company and an almost complete severance from the outside world. H blunders upon Finn and desperately strives to ignite a friendship with bribes, harassment, and general pushiness. Finn accepts H into his life and the two enjoy an idyllic holiday of fishing, fires and companionship; but inevitably H’s intrusion impacts Finn’s life in a very harmful way.

What I Was received starred reviews from two of five from major reviewing publications and positive comments from all. The language, tone, and coming-of-age plot are all widely praised. I’m a huge LM Montgomery fan and of titles were the ocean or sea are important to the plot, so I liked the idea of an idyll by the sea and how the tides actually influence the plot. I also hoped for a disenchanted boarding school boy who might be kin to that ultimate disaffected schoolboy Holden Caufield, and was intrigued by the critics’ description of a slow-moving plot that ultimately builds in intensity to a very emotional climax. Basically – I had very high expectations for What I Was!

But – after finishing it, I was left greatly disappointed. The framing flashback portends some great event or action, but not much actually happens. We get very little information about our narrator, and I’m not talking about the lack of first name (and as a digression, the discovery that he doesn’t like to say it because it sounds like a girl’s name seemed just absurdly trivial after the build up). He says that his “behaviour was not deplorable if by deplorable you mean rude, belligerent, violent, and antisocial” (6) but then says that expulsion from the second school “required slightly more effort and the help of materials readily available from any school chemistry lab” (15) which suggests to me that violence of some sort was likely involved. These and many other discrepancies in H’s behaviour frustrated any attempts to understand the narrator. Is he meant to be inconsistent? It is possible Rosoff was doing this on purpose and crafting an unreliable narrator – and if so, then I suppose congratulations. Instead of the broody, sensitive and thoughtful youth I expected, H proves to be self-aggrandizing and overly proud of what he sees as the differences between himself and other students.
The relationship between H and Finn develops at a deadly dull pace, with our protagonist cringingly and yet smarmily insinuating himself. While he tells us how much he fears that he is intruding on Finn, we’re meant to sympathize; but it’s hard to do so when it seems pretty clear that Finn is largely appreciative of his company. The ongoing references to H’s uncertainty come off as false attempts to ingratiate himself to the reader, and frankly it is as annoying as a person standing at your elbow asking repeatedly whether or not you like their company. Holden wouldn’t have anything to do with H, who is clearly one of his despised “phonies.” Furthermore, there is a world of difference between a languid and slow-moving plot that expands on scenes and characters that the reader wants to spend time with and a book that is just straight-up boring. I don’t want to spend this much time sitting around with H and Finn (especially H), because he isn’t all that interesting.

Overall I felt that the book was trying to include too many things while somehow managing to have very little happen in the plot: sexual awakenings coyly referenced in comments about H’s attraction Finn, which seems to me clearly erotic despite statements like: “Finn was my fantasy and I didn’t feel inclined to share. Please don’t get the wrong impression from my use of the word ‘fantasy.’ I didn’t long to see him in that way. It wasn’t even that I longed to see him so much as to be him” (23-24), bits of a schoolboy boarding school narrative, some issues about bullying, self discovery, and even some pretty didactic environmentalism. It’s admirable to be ambitious, but I didn’t feel that the narrative actually came together to be about anything. This is a book with a major twist that can be seen coming a mile away, but I can write 800 words without mentioning it because there is so much else going on… and yet somehow I found the story very slow going and tedious.
After all that, though, I’m willing to admit that maybe I was just not in the right frame of mind for this particular story. Maybe reading it on the coast during a foggy grey afternoon would’ve improved it ten-fold. Nonetheless, slogging along the coastline with H and Finn is not something I would recommend. Laura

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