January 18, 2013

Retro Friday Review: How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff

Retro Friday is a weekly meme hosted here @ Angieville and focuses on reviewing books from the past. This can be an old favorite, an under-the-radar book you think deserves more attention, something woefully out of print, etc. Everyone is welcome to join in at any time!
Honestly, it's like trying to articulate why you love your child reviewing some of these books. I don't know how anyone can be expected to do them justice. But I am going to press on foolhardily, if only because this is one of the ones I never stop talking about, never stop thinking about. Originally published in 2004, How I Live Now is Meg Rosoff's debut novel and winner of the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature. I've loved many a Printz Award winner, but this one is truly the best of the best. I remember it came in the mail, on loan from a friend who somehow knew how much it would mean to me. I slid it out of the envelope and wondered at how slim it was and at the dark cover and the quiet English village. I started it that night and my eyes did not leave the page until it was finished. I'm pretty sure I slept with it clasped to my chest. Then I woke up and read it again in one long swallow, knowing I would have to send it back and afraid to let it out of my grasp for fear it would all turn out to be just a beautiful dream. I remember pressing it into my sister's hands, incoherent in my need to share it with someone else. And I remember deciding that very morning that if I ever had a daughter her name would be Piper. Piper, after a little girl with blond hair and a gift for happiness, shining like a light in so much darkness. It's been almost a decade, and yet those visceral emotions are as close to the surface now as they were then. And, of course, now I have a little girl named Piper, with blond hair and a gift for happiness, and . . . well, I did say it was like trying to articulate why you love your child, didn't I?

Daisy has been packed off to England. At the insistence of her evil stepmother Davina, her distant-at-best father has agreed to send her to live with her cousins in the BACK OF BEYOND somewhere deep in the English countryside. And so against her express wishes, she finds herself stepping off the plane and into another world. It turns out that her cousins don't so much exist under anything so prosaic as adult supervision. Their mother, her Aunt Penn, is frequently off protesting The War, and so her four offspring (Osbert, Isaac, Edmond, and Piper) are pretty much left to their own odd devices. Odd being the key word as far as Daisy is concerned. Osbert is nominally in charge, but rarely can be bothered to take notice of his younger siblings. Isaac doesn't speak at all, except perhaps to the goats and dogs he tends, and even then they're not telling. Edmond (Isaac's twin) constantly puts Daisy on the wrong foot with his cigarette smoking and underage driving and ability to respond to things she's thought but not spoken. And Piper . . . well, Piper is lovely in every way and, as such, cannot possibly be real. But she is real. They all are. And before she realizes it, Daisy has become one of them. Somehow, with a war raging, and everything she's ever known thousands of miles away, Daisy finds a place to belong. It's not as though she really thought it might last. It's just that she never understood just how hard it would be to let go when the world creeps inside their Eden and rips it all to shreds. 

There's no use trying to sugarcoat this one. It is absolutely brutal. From the stark lack of punctuation and intermittent use of capitals to the way Daisy embraces her eating disorder to the questionable shenanigans the five of them get up to with their utter lack of supervision. To say nothing of the war itself which hangs over the whole gorgeous thing just waiting for its moment to strike. And strike it does. 
I was pretty far gone, but not so far gone that I thought anyone with half a toehold in reality would think what we were doing was a good idea.
Daisy's unflagging humor is what reeled me in on the very first page. Her humor saves her--it saves us--when things become unbearable. And that humor translates into barest survival when she comes to the end of her rope. I so admired Daisy. I adored Piper, loved Edmond and Isaac unreservedly, and was casually indifferent to Osbert. But my hat was off to Daisy for scraping together every bit of defiance she could in the face of certain annihilation. Her voice matures as her experience grows and Rosoff insinuates it so naturally that this evolution creates not even a ripple across the surface of the narrative. 
I was dying, of course, but then we all are. Every day, in perfect increments, I was dying of loss. The only help for my condition, then as now, is that I refused to let go of what I loved. I wrote everything down, at first in choppy fragments; a sentence here, a few words there, it was the most I could handle at the time. Later I wrote more, my grief muffled but not eased by the passage of time.

When I go back over my writing now I can barely read it. The happiness is the worst. Some days I can't bring myself to remember. But I will not relinquish a single detail of the past. What remains of my life depends on what happened six years ago.

In my brain, in my limbs, in my dreams, it is still happening.
My word, how she grows. Her dogged persistence in the face of horrific obstacles left me a huddled mess of emotions, the chiefest of these being a fierce loyalty and determination to see her claim what was hers--what was left of it (or them). And to know that it would be enough, that she would hold all the jagged pieces together until they felt (or she made them) whole. Rosoff's writing matches the brutality of her story step for step, but it also manages to counter it with interludes of breathtaking beauty. These handful of scenes remain among the choicest of my reading life, and I pull them out whenever I need them, much as I imagine Daisy does. Still. And always.


Retro Friday Roundup

Linkage
The Book Smugglers - "How I Live Now is not flawless but it is SO beautiful it hurts."
The Broke and the Bookish - "This book is one of the most memorable, original books I've ever read with a poignant and unusual love story."
The Crooked Shelf - "My brain can't quite process how a book can be so devastating and yet so beautiful all at once that the lines blur between them and it just is."
Dear Author - "
Although the book gets quite dark, Daisy’s wry commentary got me laughing out loud in the midst of moments that might otherwise have been grim."
Good Books and Good Wine - " I found How I Live Now to be compelling and impossible to put down until the very end."
Medieval Bookworm - " . . . the whole book was a stunning look at the effect a real-life war would have on a first world country at this point in time."
One Librarian's Book Reviews - "A unique and realistic book about teenagers in the middle of a war."
Persnickety Snark - "Rosoff is gifted. Immensely so."

24 comments:

  1. It really is amazing that you can pretty much convince me to read this book again, even though I remember not liking it much the first time. You have a gift, girl!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Lol. I know it wasn't your favorite. It really is such a force that I completely understand it not working at all if it's not an utter home run.

      If you were to pick it up again, though, I would be interested to hear your thoughts the second time around . . . :)

      Delete
  2. I read this one halfway through, and I didn't think I could make it. I could see its stark, brutal beauty, but my heart and mind were already full and I put it down. One day I'll go back, because I know it'll be worth it.

    In the mean time, I'm reading older sci-fi on a whim and loving it (my <a href="http://bit.ly/11EXlhF>Retro Friday</a> post).

    Thanks for sharing how you feel about <i>How I Live Now</i> - I know it's very hard to put into words what you love about the books that mean the most.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, it likely has to home in at the right time or it could easily be too much. One day . . .

      Delete
  3. Also: dang. Sorry those links didn't work. Thought they would. :(

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ugh. I hate that. I hopped on over anyway and your review has inspired me to pick that one up. I really have been meaning to for ages.

      Delete
  4. One of my absolute favorites. Actually, I love all of Meg Rosoff's books and I'm still mad at the college friend who stole Just in Case.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I love them all, too. She's in a class alone as far as I'm concerned.

      Hehe. It can be hard to let those book stealing grudges go. Believe me, I know!

      Delete
  5. Thanks for linking to my Retro Friday review, Angie! I remember I grabbed a copy of How I Live Now because I know that it's one of your favorites. I knew that you got your daughter's name from this book. I still haven't read it though - my copy is back home in Manila - but I will get to it sooner or later.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Of course! I enjoyed reading both of your reviews. I'm glad you have a copy of HILN in your possession, Chachic. This makes me feel safe. And whenever the mood does strike you, I'll be here. :)

      Delete
  6. I'm glad you still love this story so much so manny years since you first read it.
    This is one of those that I just never got around reading, though I'm pretty sure someone loaned me the audiobook at some point.
    I'll try to find it again, though.
    Thanks for the review.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Definitely try to find it. It's short and so worth it.

      Delete
  7. I loved reading about your response to this book and how it's stayed with you, and become part of you. It's such a brilliant book. I think I actually read it because you mentioned it here, so that's another one I owe you :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Alexa! Did you really? That makes me incredibly happy. Especially since you loved it, too. :)

      Delete
  8. I totally missed this one the first time around when it came out, but it sounds like one I'm going to have to find.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, I am obviously partial. But I wholeheartedly recommend it.

      Delete
  9. I did not realize that this was Rosoff's debut novel. All I can say is WOW. Have you read The Bride's Farewell? Not quite on the level of How I Live Now, but it has its moments. MY, does it have its moments.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Right?!

      I have read The Bride's Farewell! I feel the same way. My does it have its moments. Just exquisite ones.

      Delete
  10. Awww, I love that you named your daughter Piper. LOVE IT.

    Angie, I want to read How I Live Now again even though I have no time for it. #whining

    Amazing review like every other one you write.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Couldn't help myself, April. She was such a wonderful character.

      I feel your pain regarding rereading. I have a whole list of ones I'm in the mood to visit again, but it's so hard to drop the time to do it. *sigh*

      Delete
  11. I really truly need to read this one...it's been on my TBR, but NOW of course it's on my 'seriously read this you idiot' list. I've only read one of Rosoff's books to date, and I know it's too little as I adored her style. I knew that your kids names were from books, but I didn't know that Piper was from this one. That right there says more about your feelings for this book than just about anything I can think of.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You really truly do. :)

      Which one have you read?

      Delete
  12. I've had this book on my shelf for soooo long. At least since you announced Piper's birth on your blog and why you chose her name. I will read it this year. I promise!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh wow! That has been awhile. ;)

      Please let me know when you do.

      Delete