Dec 18 2006
Dear Ms. Rosoff,
When a book has won a slew of awards including ALA Best Books for Young Adults 2005 and Publishers Weekly Best Children’s Book of the Year, and has even been nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, it hardly needs more accolades from me.
Here I am regardless, writing this open letter mainly to say that I think the folks who hand out these prizes were on to something, and readers with a taste for young adult fiction with a touch of romance, or who like their dystopias served up with a scoop of wry humor on the side, might enjoy this book as much as I did.
Whether How I Live Now takes place in an alternate present or in the very near future isn’t clear, but it doesn’t matter, because the world it is set in feels so familiar that when things start to go wrong they’re disturbingly convincing. The book begins when Daisy, its fifteen year old American narrator, arrives in England. Daisy tells her story in long sentences and a wry tone.
Anyway, I'm looking and looking and everyone's leaving and there's no signal on my phone and I'm thinking Oh great, I'm going to be abandoned at the airport so that's two countries they don't want me in, when I notice everyone's gone except this kid who comes up to me and says You must be Daisy. And when I look relieved he does too and says I'm Edmond.
Daisy’s voice takes a little taking used to, but it wasn’t long before I was caught up in her story. Daisy and her “wicked stepmother” Davina don’t get along, and now that Davina is pregnant, Daisy’s father has sent Daisy to live with her maternal aunt and her cousins. The cousins are nine year old Piper, fourteen year old twins Edmond and Isaac, and sixteen year old Osbert.
Daisy’s relationship with her dad is clearly complicated (she starves herself partly because it forces her father to spend his money on psychiatrists), but the cousins and her aunt Pen welcome Daisy so warmly that she feels wanted for the first time in her life. The family lives in big country house with dogs and chickens and ducks and goats, some of which are pets and some of which are there for decoration. To Daisy, who has lived in Manhattan all her life, the place seems exotic and strange, but in a good way.
There’s a wasp in the ointment, however, and that is the fact that everyone expects war to break out soon. Daisy and the other kids see this mostly as a lark, but Daisy’s aunt Pen is a diplomat, and takes it very seriously. Shortly after Daisy’s arrival, Pen leaves for Oslo, where a last ditch attempt at diplomacy is to be made. But while she is away, London is attacked, England’s borders are closed, and the kids are left on their own.
In the beginning they are glad to be free of parental supervision. Being on their own is exciting, and even the war is thrilling since it doesn’t yet touch them. Osbert dreams of spying on the enemy, a country whose identity is at first unknown and later unnamed.
Daisy and Edmond have another reason to be happy with the present state of affairs. It’s very nearly love at first sight for them, despite the fact that they are first cousins. At first they try to resist their feelings, but eventually they give in to them. They are, as Daisy puts it, starved for each other, and the absence of adults makes it possible for them to try to satisfy their endless hunger.
But this idyll can’t and doesn’t last long. First the countryside is quarantined due to a rumored outbreak of smallpox, and then British soldiers commandeer the house, recruit Osbert, and send Daisy and Piper west, to live with a military family. Both girls are miserable at being separated from their family, and Daisy promises Piper that she will reunite them with Edmond and Isaac. But she will have to ensure her own survival and Piper’s first.
How I Live Now starts out intriguing and gets better from there. Some readers might be squicked out by the fact that Edmond and Daisy are cousins. I was a little bit discomfited at first, but their love scenes took place behind closed doors, and as the book progressed I saw that their love was one of the things that kept them whole in an unstable world with jagged edges, and I came to appreciate how much it meant to them, and to want them to be reunited.
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. What unfolds during the war is at times surreal, but Daisy is so grounded in reality that the book remains believable even when elements of the fantastical are introduced. You weave together threads from several genres to create a beautiful fabric of a book, something new and not quite like anything I’ve read before, though I was reminded a bit of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower.
The only reason this book won’t get a straight A from me is that a time transition near the end felt abrupt and choppy, and for a little while there were too many unanswered questions that Daisy knew and could have supplied the answers to circling in my head and distracting me. One in particular I still wonder about.