Review: How I Live Now; Meg Rosoff

“Some days I can’t bring myself to remember. But I will not relinquish a single detail of the past.” (3.5 stars) 

Source- personal copy

This version published by Penguin Books in 2005

The paperback version is 211 pages.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I picked up this novel; a sweet, coming-of-age story perhaps? That gorgeously pretty cover adorned with butterflies suggested a wholesome, romantic tale was afoot, so needless to say I was pretty surprised when it veered from a story of young cousins forging an illicit romance to a darker story of war and it became an odd (though not unwelcome) combination of science and apocalyptic fiction.

Anorexic teenager Elizabeth (also known as Daisy) lives in Manhattan with her father and stepmother, Davina, with whom she just doesn’t get along. Her father decides that to give everyone a little respite, Daisy should go and stay with her cousins and aunt in England for a while. It is soon after Daisy arrives in the UK that bombs go off in London and Europe is suddenly attacked by an unnamed enemy- with the country now at war and against the backdrop of a failing system, Daisy and her cousins must now face the unknown.

There’s been a bit of buzz about the recently released film version of this book lately. I’ve had this novel sat on my shelves virtually forever, so it was hardly surprising that the film trailer prompted something in my head to say “hmm, that seems familiar. Oh yes, I must read that.”

I had high hopes for it, I have to admit. The praise on the version of the cover I have (and from Mark Haddon nonetheless) deems this to be a noteworthy read and many other reviews I’ve read seem to constantly labour the point that this is a stellar read.

It’s not fabulous. I mean, it’s certainly not a terrible read, but I do think it is a little over-hyped for what it is and doesn’t focus as much on some of the concepts I’d anticipated that are divulged- Daisy’s anorexia is only sporadically mentioned for example and her narrative voice took a lot of getting used to at first. That said, I’m probably not in the reading demographic it’s aimed at (presumably YA), and I found the writing style a little simplistic for my tastes with a lot of the heavier subject matter somewhat glossed over in places. Daisy as a narrator remains also completely self-absorbed throughout (like an a-typical teenager I guess) and as a consequence of this, I never really felt able to immerse myself fully in what was going on in the plot as I just didn’t find out enough about it. This was in essence a story about war and yet the events were told in a completely detached manner. Whilst this may be believable from a teenager’s perspective, for me as a reader it just wasn’t engaging enough to hold my attention and had this been a longer book than what it was, I may have given up altogether. I think this novel would have worked a lot better had it not been written from a first-person perspective and it may have had more substance.

There is also that old cliché in here that I hate: the wicked stepmother. I think I am yet to read a book where the stepmother isn’t a monster, to be honest. It becomes a bit wearisome after a while. That said, Daisy herself wasn’t given a lot of depth and neither was Edmond. The ‘romance’ between them was just not really needed, weird and contrived as it was.  Not weird in an ‘I’m sleeping with my cousin’ kind of weird, though admittedly that was pretty strange. No, it was weird because Edmond himself was just odd and truth be told, kind of creepy and a strange, cigarette-smoking man-child. Thankfully, the whole romantic aspect later becomes secondary to the main story-line, so it’s easy enough to forget about it, though I did find myself rolling my eyes at some of the more Sci-Fi supernatural elements that cropped up between he and Daisy and of the ‘bond’ that they shared.

So, why have I given this novel 3.5 stars? I hear you ask, if it sounds like all I’m doing is complaining about it.  If I’m honest, though the story takes a while to get going, once it does it is actually pretty gripping and there were some really great moments in this book that showcased some brilliant, evocative writing and some good characters: Piper, Daisy’s cousin is just about the most resourceful, adorable nine-year-old I have ever come across in fiction. Whilst she isn’t entirely realistic, she was a real boost to this story-line and I just loved her. I wanted to reach into the book and squeeze her. Piper and her whole survival-mode thing during the time of war really picked up the plot and it is for me, what made this entire book worthwhile.

There was drama and a surprising amount of it, once the pace picked up. Admittedly, I had to wait to get to it (until nearly 50% of the book in fact), but when it arrived, it explored how seemingly normal people-like you and I- would cope in the face of frightening, terrible adversity. Daisy and her cousins are just kids, yet faced with something dire they still act on instinct and try to stay alive. This is a dystopian story that is in another realm from The Hunger Games or Divergence, there is no super-strength or skills involved, just Daisy hanging in there and this was an aspect that I really enjoyed and showed her evolution as a person.

Though I’m not sure if I would be in any rush to watch the movie on the big screen, I’m guessing I might wait for it to come out on DVD as I think this is a novel that would translate really well for cinematic purposes. It’s not a typical teen-romance and not your everyday survival story either and I’d be interested to read other books by Rosoff to see what other themes her stories cover.

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