Book 54: What I Was by Meg Rosoff, isbn 9780765321855, 368 pages, Tor, $26.95
WHAT I WAS was an impulse buy off of the $2 table at a Books-A-Million in Roanoke. The back-cover copy pulled me in (which is what back cover copy is supposed to do on trade paperbacks, after all). The book is narrated by H., nearing the end of a long and seemingly fulfilling life. He reflects on the teenage "relationship that has shaped and obsessed him for nearly a century." That relationship was with a "beautiful boy named Finn, who lives alone in a fisherman's hut by the sea. Their friendship deepens, offering H the freedom and human connection that has always eluded him. But all too soon the idyll that nurtured their relationship is shattered by heart-wrenching scandal."
I wish the book were half as interesting as it sounded. I was expecting, because of the boarding-school-by-the-sea setting, a bit more closeted boy-romance. I was expecting, because of the back cover copy, a revelation partway through the book that rocks the characters' world. Instead, what we get is an excellent "inside his head" character study of H and how he is a) obsessed with the free-spirit but not socially adept Finn and b) oblivious to the schoolmate in his own dorm who could be his only friend if H would just stop to think about it. Even from the vantage of his later years, H is brutally honest about his own teenage motivations, how his lust and fear combined to alienate him from everyone except the virtually unknowable Finn. On the mission of creating a very understandable main character, Rosoff succeeds. I won't go so far as to say "this is a British CATCHER IN THE RYE," because I don't think that was Rosoff's intent at all. There's a similarity in feel in that the narrator is caught up completely in his own world and doesn't really understand what's going on around him (or, if he does, he brushes it aside in favor of what he wants us to think is going on around him), but the similarity in feel is about as far as I'm comfortable taking the comparison. (Besides, aren't we all tired of hearing first-person-teen-boy-narrators described as "the next Holden Caulfield?")
The shocking scandal? It comes way too late in the proceedings and is dispatched fairly quickly in favor of a "here's what the rest of my life was like" ending. The events precipitating the scandal are somewhat brutally described, and I give credit to Rosoff for some terrific writing in that section. I can't say I was completely shocked by what transpires in those pages; in retrospect the hints are all there regarding where this will all go, despite the fact that the book never feels like it's headed in any particular direction at all. What I take exception to is the editors who decided to tout "the heart-wrenching scandal" as the core of the book when it really isn't. If it was meant to be the core of the book, I'd think Rosoff would have taken a little more time with it, teased out more details of the years immediately following the breaking of the scandal -- but it's as if Rosoff, and by extension H, loses interest once those key events play out. The breaking of the scandal and its aftermath are almost glossed over.
As a character study, I can recommend the first two thirds of the book, but I have to say I was disappointed in what feels like a complete lack of energy in the final third.