One of my duties in the library is to order books for 6th – 12th grade readers, which I’ve done for well over a year, now. These are not really the kinds of books that I gravitate toward naturally, but as a teen-librarian-of-sorts I’m expected to know the the latest titles. So, this year, I’m trying to read more of the books from our YA collection. Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now is one of the newest additions to our library (even though it was published almost ten years ago, whoops!), so I decided to pick it up this week and give it a whirl.
How I Live Now has a lot going on inside its pages. It begins with the narrative of fifteen-year-old Daisy, a teenager from Manhattan living in an undisclosed time period (though it seems to fit rather snugly within our own). Upset about her father’s marriage to her new stepmother, Daisy develops an eating disorder and is sent to multiple doctors and psychiatrists, finally winning her father’s approval to live with her aunt and cousins in England. The novel begins with her arrival in the rural countryside home of her distant English family.
There, Daisy spends her summer in a sort of idyllic paradise: hiking along the vibrant gardens, swimming in the nearby river, and learning all about the animals kept on the property. Daisy also forms extraordinarily close bonds with two of her cousins: Piper, a precocious, pure-spirited nine-year-old, and Edmond, a quiet, cigarette-smoking fourteen-year-old who harbors some kind of telepathic power or sensibility, though the author never explains its presence. Daisy’s relationship with Piper becomes sister-like; her relationship with Edmond becomes decidedly uncousin-like. They begin having sex, secretly.
Throughout all of this, there are rumors spreading of an impending war on British soil. Daisy’s aunt – Piper and Edmond’s mother – is somehow involved and flies off to Oslo near the start of the book, leaving the cousins unsupervised. They enjoy their freedom, and develop a soft of self-sufficient nuclear unit. Rumors continue to circulate and their mother remains out-of-touch, but none of this seems to worry the kids too much; the war hasn’t touched them yet.
But then, of course, it does. Food is harder to come by. There are long lines in town waiting for incoming supplies, which arrive haphazardly or not at all. Electricity fails and gasoline becomes impossible to acquire. The kids retreat further into the Eden they’ve created for themselves, and receive little notice from the outside world. Daisy and Edmond continue their clandestine relationship.
Then the army arrives, sequestering the children’s home and sending them out into the world. Daisy and her cousin Piper are sent to live with an army family, while Edmond and his older brothers are sent to a farm in the opposite direction. While separated, the true scale of the war comes alive for Daisy in ways she had not even imagined. She and Piper make a desperate escape after their protector is murdered by enemy soldiers.
There really is a lot happening in this story, and I think the problem for me was that there were too many separate and seemingly incompatible strands. I couldn’t figure out what the book was, exactly. The war isn’t really explained or elaborated upon — but that can be forgiven, I suppose, because Daisy’s perspective as a fifteen-year-old American is severely limited. Then there was this strange, incestuous relationship between Daisy and Edmond that didn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense. On top of that, there are all these hints about Edmond’s telepathic abilities, but those aren’t explained either.
And then there is the fact that Daisy is a spoiled, selfish young girl with an eating disorder and a serious chip on her shoulder, whose father agrees to send her to an obviously volatile country rather than deal with her problems any longer. There really is no resolution, there, and very little to connect the bratty, self-absorbed Daisy from the beginning of the book to the selfless hero she becomes.
That being said, I actually did enjoy this book. It did leave me feeling a little bit unsatisfied, but the plot was engaging enough to keep me turning the pages. What I really liked about the book was the narration. Daisy has a very unique voice and the grammar was modified to suit it, right down to the sentence structure, and reading her story was unlike anything else I’ve read. I really admire when an author can create a character that sounds genuine and original, and I think Rosoff accomplished that tremendously. Despite all of her flaws, I came to like Daisy.
In parts, I also liked that things weren’t always spelled out for me. Rosoff hints at horrible atrocities and really leaves little to the imagination — but she doesn’t spend pages elaborating upon these scenes. This worked for me in some places and not in others (for example, it left too much unanswered in regards to the telepathy angle and Daisy’s tumultuous back-story), but it was the perfect way to capture war in the eyes of an innocent teenager. War is not an elaborate passage: it’s a wrenching in your gut. It’s the sudden burn of bile in your throat. It’s quick and dirty and entirely unforgettable, and I think that was conveyed really well in this story.
As for Daisy: A lot of people find her off-putting because she seems so self-absorbed, at least in the first half of the book, and I definitely think that’s valid. I disagree with some of the passages being used to support that, however. Take this one:
“That was a bomb that went off in the middle of a big train station in London the day after Aunt Penn went to Oslo and something like seven or seventy thousand people got killed. This obviously went over very badly with the populace at large and was pretty scary etc. but to be honest it didn’t seem to have that much to do with us way off in the country.”
Okay, yes. Scum of the Earth, I get that. But I think it’s hard to imagine what war really looks like until it arrives at your doorstep. Remember, she’s only fifteen. Even at twenty-four I do this — it’s like hearing about natural disasters in the news. Typhoon in the Philippines kills 3,000. You can’t conceptualize that. When the numbers get that big, they might as well be zero. The same way you can’t imagine the distance between Jupiter and the Sun, or the number of planets in one leg of one little solar system. Every time you try to visualize it, you get this panicky feeling deep in your chest that you can’t make sense of or understand, so you don’t even grapple with it. Some people turn things off when they get too heavy, and, in my mind, it isn’t selfishness. It’s self-preservation.
Or maybe I just sympathize with Daisy because that’s a survival tactic that I often use, and I would hate to be accused of not caring about people I can’t see. I care in an abstract way — in a way that acknowledges that those people never stepped one foot inside my life’s radius, nor me in theirs. Its hard to feel the sudden absence of a person who was never there to begin with.
So, I guess I’m trying to say that I forgive that flaw in Daisy because I understand where it comes from. But if the above quotation puts you off in the slightest, you might want to stay away from this book. It’s also a good sample of what her narrative sounds like stylistically, so there’s that to consider.
All in all, an enjoyable if slightly uneven read. I do wish that Rosoff had left off some of the superfluous stuff and focused on the war and its consequences, but I did enjoy it nonetheless. (As a librarian, though, I’m slightly horrified that I ordered this book for our children’s YA section, given the cousinly boinking. Might have to re-label this one).
On to the next!