How I Live Now
by Meg Rosoff
2004 • 194 pages • Penguin Books
During my sophomore year of high school, we were given a choice between two novels to read in English class. The first was Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now, which had worked its way from newly published book to speculative fiction suitable for expanding the minds of our young folk in only a few years. Examining the book, I realized that it featured a love story between two blood cousins. Obscene!, I raged to myself. Inappropriate!, I raged to myself. Despite having read American Gods at the tender age of twelve, I had virtuously tricked my mother into purchasing that novel for me by not saying a word when I presented it at the counter; a school passing that filth out? My recently developed and oversensitive sense of morality was offended to the core. (I saw myself as an authority, set apart from other kids. Needless to say, I was an insufferable giant child.)
I selected the other book, Caroline B. Cooney’s Code Orange, and ended up turning in what amounted to my very first book review, lambasting it for lacking any character development and focusing on a sensationalist treatment of biological terrorism. Class discussion was full of terse eye-rolling, and we quickly moved onto the next unit. But How I Live Now has haunted me ever since then, cropping up positively in bookish discourse and then making its way quietly to the silver screen with the always astonishing Saoirse Ronan in the title role. I’m not a stickler for reading the book before I see a film (Gone Girl doesn’t interest me, but David Fincher’s Gone Girl starring Rosamund Pike sure does), but given my ability to swallow young adult books whole, there was no reason not to read the book first.
I am convinced that there are some texts that you can only truly embrace when you’re a teenager. (Given my obsession with the eighties, I was devastated to discover that The Breakfast Club is one of those texts.) How I Live Now is, mercifully, not one of those texts, although it’s obvious why teenagers love it. Daisy’s voice is blazingly engaging, even if it takes a while to plug into her cadence and unorthodox grammar. I’ve had a wonderful run of very engaging young adult novels as of late, the first being The Jewel and the second being How I Live Now, and I just couldn’t stop reading. And it doesn’t skimp on reality, from Daisy’s anorexia to the boredom and horror of war to love—not a fairy tale kind of love, but real, difficult love.
And, perhaps most importantly, it also focuses on how callous and cruel the young can be and how they grow and rise above that. This intertwines beautifully with how the war rises and falls like a tide, with Daisy and her main charge, her little cousin Piper, witnessing both the aftermath of a massacre and the strange, pure affection a group of soldiers protecting them have for the slightly fey Piper. (There are some slightly supernatural elements—the cousins communicate with words at times and Daisy experiences a mental connection with Edmond during the war—but they’re treated, wonderfully, as matter-of-fact.) After the unnamed war breaks out in Britain, Daisy and her cousins spend a few idyllic weeks without parental supervision, barely caring that there’s a war on until it comes to their door and seizes the family estate. Having developed anorexia to spite her stepmother back in America, Daisy initially takes to limited rations well, but seeing the ravages of war and food shortage, she begins to recover.
How I Live Now is an amazing war story, focused on what people will do for those they love and how the experience unites them and changes them, not always for the better. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but I’m so, so pleased that Rosoff went there to show how this marks you forever. Daisy may have recovered from her anorexia and finally found a family, but war has scarred her (and all of the cousins) for both the better and the worse.
(Excuse me while I reach back into the past to box wee Clare about the ears.)
I rented this book from the public library.