Friday, January 15, 2010

*How I Live Now* by Meg Rosoff -- A Re-reading Retrospective!

"It would be much easier to tell this story if it were all about a chaste and perfect love between Two Children Against the World at an Extreme Time in History but let’s face it that would be a load of crap"

How I Live Now, like other really great books, is a world of its own.

It’s also Meg’s first book, which renders me agog. Her sister’s death from cancer was the impetus to write, and at the time HILN was slated for publication she herself was diagnosed with the disease. I have read a few interviews with Meg and I have this sense of her as a lady who rightfully sees doubt and fear as huge impediments to life. The world that Daisy finds herself living in is one where you live day by day, and at times hour by hour. Meg has a wise and wide perspective and it makes HILN a deeply resonant book.

"I like writing for and about teens because it's a very extreme time of life, and that makes for intense transformations, intense possibilities for growth. I think many people find their teens a difficult and disturbing time, but also a time of great excitement and intensity. As a writer, you can't ask for a better set-up than that."
( referencing source on

Daisy is 15 and on top of the intense transformational period of being a teen, she finds herself in the explosive transformative time of war. The book opens with her arrival in England, self-exiled from her dad’s home in New York, leaving behind a new step-mom and step-sister. She intends on staying with cousins she’s never met and the sister of her deceased mother. What she finds is a sprawling home in the countryside and a wonderfully unruly gang of kids who smoke and drive and make her feel more like herself then she ever remembers feeling.

Reading this book again I anticipated my favourite scenes being replayed. One of my excitements is the first time Daisy sees the house, which “is practically indescribable if the only sort of houses you’ve lived in before are apartments in New York City.” There is this garden—actually wildness and growing things are a huge part of the imagery during the first part of the story—that appears again at the end of the book and had me captivated a second time:

Climbing up the front of the house is a huge vine with a stem so thick it must have been growing there for hundreds of years but there aren’t any flowers on it yet, I guess because it’s too early. Behind the house and up some stone steps is a square garden surrounded by high brick walls and in there are tons of flowers blooming already all in shades of white. In one corner there’s a stone angel about the size of a child, very worn, with folded wings and Piper told me it was a child who lived in the house hundreds of years ago and is buried in the garden.

From an interview with Meg we did last May, I asked her about the child in the garden because I loved the imagery and what it suggested. She said that, “The angel in the garden was originally thrown in as a casual detail, but I found I liked what it suggested and added another reference to it at the end. Take your pick -- the death of innocence, the reminder that in the midst of life we are in death (to coin a phrase), mortality juxtaposed with rebirth (the bulbs and the roses in the garden) and also a little reminder to Daisy that she is not the centre of the universe -- that people have lived and died before she was even born.”

When the garden pops back up at the end of the story I was so excited and it gave me goosebumps. With a second reading the way that flora and fauna weave through the story is so vivid and perfect. Also one of my favourite scenes is the picnic that the cousins have just before their lives change. In the first part of the book these kids live outside time in a visceral and romantic connection to nature. It was very vivid for me:

We got to a place by a river and parked the jeep and got out and Isaac carried all the fishing stuff, and Edmond brought lunch and a blanket to lie on and although the day wasn’t very warm, I made a nest for myself by trampling down a little patch in the tall grass and put the blanket down and lay very still and as the sun rose up in the sky I warmed up even more and all I could hear was the sound of Edmond talking in a steady low stream of conversation to the fish, and Piper singing her odd song, and the occasional splash of the river or a bird rising into the air near us and singing its heart out.

I was thinking about almost nothing except that bird and then Edmond was next to my ear whispering Skylark, and I just nodded, knowing it was futile to ask how he knew the answers to questions you hadn’t even got around to asking yet.

There’s this magical realism in the book that I really enjoyed. It was more like Magic Realism Light, I suppose. Piper, Edmond and his twin Isaac share this unspoken connection with each other and with animals. Almost like they can read each other’s minds. Interestingly, Osbert, their older brother who goes all Hitler Youth, doesn’t connect with them in this way, or even close. Daisy finds a strong connection with Edmond, even when they are far apart. There is this amazing scene where Piper refuses to go back into their house near the end because of the ghosts, and even Daisy can still hear echoes of their old life and of the people who were in the house. Daisy is wandering around and is describing the unreal feel of home after wartime.
And while Daisy and Edmond are separated, Daisy *knows* that he is still alive. She sometimes gets a sense of what he's seeing and feeling. Although this connection is not ultimate, as seen when Edmond's mind and heart are lost to what he's experienced, which Daisy believes, must have been far worse than what she and Piper had witnessed. Meg writes about this connection very beautifully and believably.

When I read HILN for the first time this year I thought it was set in WWII. The back cover mentions a war and I just assumed, probably because it's such a hot topic for fiction. Then I did a double-take when Daisy talks about cell phone reception. It's funny, even when Edmond picks her up at the airport he seems to be a creature out of another time period. He smokes, he's assured, and way older than he seems. I kept forgetting his actual age, which I believe is like 12-13 (?), younger than Daisy for sure. Enough to make her very aware that, had they not been living virtually parent-less in a beautiful countryside house which seems to stand outside of time, there would be nothing "Okay" about their romance. Although they weren't very "romantic" with each other. There was a sweetness and a sense of first discovery--what it would feel like to find out you have a twin, and he/she's beautiful, and you know it's wrong but *everything* in the world is absolutely wrong right at this moment, so hey.
I keep seeing HILN labelled Dystopian and on Dystopian book lists and such. And I get it because the war that erupts, or rather infiltrates slowly and feeds on confusion and fear, isn't any war in particular. HILN feels like the setting could be five minutes from now. Meg mentions that the war in the book is a pastiche of modern conflicts, including WWII, but not limited to it. HILN isn't historical fiction but a story that talks about our future. The way that war will be fought--the breakdown in technology and our dependence on it. So in this way I can see it as Dystopian. The pervading fear and helplessness that sets in once all electrical communication ends is very quick. People turn on each other and no one knows what's going on.
I really enjoyed re-reading How I Live Now. I knew what was going to happen so I was able to soften my focus and catch the subtleties. There is so much in this book that I haven't covered, which is one of the downfalls of writing a spoiler-free review! There's so much to take away.
HILN really sticks with you.
What did you think of it? I'm excited to see your comments!


brizmus said...

Okay! This book sounds totally amazing! What a creepy but sweet sounding romance!

Sara said...

I remember reading this book about five(?) years ago. And I remember that it was really good and sad! Maybe I too should re-read it?

Marge in Chehalis WA said...

A very fast, engaging read. I really enjoyed the author's writing style, it made me feel as if I could hear "Daisy's" voice in my head. The story had many twists and turns that I did not expect, and the ending left me with a few lingering questions that I am still turning over in my mind.

As a whole, I really enjoyed the story, but I guess I find myself wishing it had been slightly longer with the hope that some of my questions could have been answered. This makes me ponder the thought that perhaps the author wanted us to think about what happened in the story long after closing the book after the last page.

Later thoughts: I started this story with the mistaken thought that it took place during a past war. I actually had to keep reminding myself that it was present/future, as the children seemed from another time...precocious slightly describes them.

Edmond is still a puzzle to me. I have so much I feel like I don't understand about him. Daisy felt such a connection to him, and yet he became so damaged and lost. It was tragic to me.

Favorite Quotes:
"Of course in order to survive Piper and I needed to have a plan, and I was the one who was going to have to make it because Piper's job was to be a Mystical Creature and mine was to get things done here on earth which was just how the cards were dealt..."

"I asked her Do you know what invincible means? And she nodded because she's read more books in nine years than most people read in a lifetime and I said Well, as long as we're together that's what we are."

Oh there was one more quote but I just can't seem to find it this morning. I am deliberately side-stepping the first love of Edmond and Daisy, as it had a "Flowers in the Attic" flavor that made me slightly uncomfortable. However, with that did add an interesting layer to this amazing story. One that I will read again and again.

Mandy (Edge of Seventeen) said...

Brizmus: Actually it IS an amazing book. One of my faves, absolutely. Let me know if you ever read it and what you think!

YA Vamp: I really enjoyed a second reading. Like I said, I got to really notice the subtleties that I didn't pick up the first time.

Marge: I forgot about the Mystical Creature quote! It has to be one of my favourites too. I love Daisy's voice. I also wanted more from Edmond. I feel like we just lost him halfway into the story and never got him back. But this is true for Daisy, I guess. She really lost him in many ways. Even at the end while she regains a bit of what they had before the war, there is still a ways to go. There is the potential for healing and renewal, but a distance remains.
I'm so glad you liked it. :)

Heidi R. Kling said...

How I Live Now is one of my favorite books--I love the voice and the whole thing. It stuck with me long after I finished it.


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