Sunday, October 27, 2013


 I've previously reviewed Meg Rosoff's novel WHAT I WAS in this blog, after having heard her speak at last winter's SCBWI Conference. I called Rosoff "ferocious and terrifying." None of that has changed with her newest young-adult book (Putnam, 2013).
    The first thing 15-year-old Mila tells us is that she was named after a dog. "It helps if you know these things," she says. But I, the reader, don't feel helped; I feel mystified. Aha! In the opening paragraph of this novel Rosoff has already succeeded, once again, at her devilish game.
     Mila, not the reader, is the one who's helped by the information about her name, because Mila, like her parents, works as an interpreter. Her mother, a violinist, interprets musical notes on a page into living music. Her father, a translator of books, interprets the nuances of one language into the nuances of another. And Mila's expertise is in interpreting human behavior. Whatever the reader might make of the fact that Mila is named after a dog, Mila knows the truth: that her name is a symbol of the deep love her parents have for her, and for each other.
     Reading a Meg Rosoff novel is like attending a master class in writing. This, for example, is how Rosoff tells us that Matthew and Suzanne, the couple whose home Mila and her father are visiting, had a child who died:

          Now that I am fully awake I scan the room - a small desk, a metal swivel chair,
          two pairs of sneakers neatly placed in a corner. A bookshelf holds the Guinness
          Book of Records from a few years ago, a US Army Survival Manual, an ancient
          copy of Treasure Island with a worn leather cover, a tall pile of school notebooks
          and sports magazines. Just above is a shelf on which silver swimming trophies
          stand side by side and I realize with a start that this is Owen's room. There's a
          picture in a silver frame of him with Suzanne. He's got his arm round her shoul
          ders and is already a few inches taller. The room has been tidied and dusted,
          but a set of keys, a birthday card and a bowl of coins still sit on the dresser as
          if he will come along any minute to claim them.

     Go ahead, Meg Rosoff. Twist the scalpel in my heart. Or there's this conversation between Mila, whom her father calls Perjuntador (Portuguese for "asker of questions") and her father, whom Mila calls by his name, Gil, about an old friend of Gil's that Mila has just met:

          "How much do you like Lynda?"
          Gil frowns. "Why on earth do you ask that?"
          I look at him.
          "Just the normal amount. It was a long time ago that we were close," he says. "What are you
          thinking?" He peers at me closely.
          I don't answer.
          Then he says, "You don't think I'm in love with her?" He removes his glasses, rubs his eyes
          and replaces them. "I'm not. Of course I'm not." He sighs. "Perjuntador," he says softly.
          "The past is littered with people we've loved, or might have loved. You'll find out in time."
          I say nothing for a while. And then, "Let's go."

     It's Mila's Easter school vacation, and Mila and Gil are about to leave London to visit Matthew and Suzanne in upstate New York when Gil is informed by Suzanne that Matthew, Gil's closest friend from childhood, has suddenly gone missing. After consultation with Mila's mother, Gil decides that he and Mila are going to set off on their trip anyway. So, like all  stories that don't being with a stranger coming to town, this one begins with a journey, ostensibly for the purpose of finding Matthew. But, as Mira observes (and as always happens with journeys), she and Gil keep finding other things.
     I've been finding something myself lately: that reading exquisite books like the ones Rosoff writes spoils other books for me. It's like shining a spotlight on the poor other authors' failings: the plot holes, the crude transitions, the inadequate characterizations, all the places the seams show. Because the seams in Rosoff's books are virtually undetectable. The books themselves fall away, and all that's left is the puddle of lives within the pages. There's no wading into that puddle. You're lucky if you have enough time to catch your breath before you're pulled under.


  1. I am a huge Meg Rosoff fan and went to the very same conference you went to, specifically because I knew she was going to speak. I've got this book and am halfway putting off reading it--just to know that it is still waiting for me to dip into. So, I did not read your review, but did read the first few paragraphs of it and the last. LOVE your description: "The books themselves fall away..."

  2. Oh, thank you, Jody! I had actually never heard of Meg Rosoff until I heard her speak at that conference, but when I did, she electrified me. I'm convinced she's some kind of sorceress. Please let me know what you think of this book after you've read it! I hope you love it as much as I did.