Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
About This Book
In the mid-twenty-first century, an elderly man named Hilary looks back
through the decades to his days at St. Oswald's, a dreary English boarding
school. Though the school and much of the coastline around it have since slipped
into the sea, Hilary's memories of that time and place are vivid. A low-achiever
kicked out of two previous schools, Hilary suspected that St. Oswald's, like the
others, would offer nothing more than bourgeois manners and gory lessons from
the Dark Ages. Surviving its rigid routines and joyless days would be a matter
of will. When he encounters a strange young boy named Finn, however, everything
changes. Hilary is immediately fascinated with Finn's solo life in an ancient
hut by the sea, free of rules, family obligations and the indignities Hilary
routinely suffers at the hands of his schoolmates. Finn is not just freehe is
practically living in another era. He fishes and kayaks, reads history books,
and cooks his own meals. Finn, who has no hospital or school records, does not
exist to the rest of the world. To Hilary, he is the center of the universe.
The two boys develop an unusual friendship, with Hilary risking his school
career to sneak away to Finn's hut whenever possible. Hilary does everything he
can to protect his secret life, even when it means hurting the one schoolmate
who seems to like him. In his refuge from St. Oswald's, he learns survival
skills, and for the first time, the adult responsibilities that come with caring
about someone else.
Precarious as the coastline itself, Hilary's fantasy world cannot last. His lies
to teachers and students eventually catch up with him. The vast differences
between Hilary and Finnless perceptible in the hut than in the outside
worldultimately tear them apart.
Meg Rosoff's third novel enchants readers with its lyrical prose, engaging
storytelling, and profound insight. An astute observer of the human heart,
Rosoff captures the rush and the cruelty of adolescent desire and the imprint it
leaves on a person. What I Was is an unusual coming-of-age story that
examines the fluidity of identity and the ways in which people consciously
redefine themselves in the face of love.
Hilary participates in a bet with his classmates that he won't last
three terms at St. Oswald's school. What distinguishes him from the other
boys at St. Oswald's and what keeps him from fitting in?
Hilary's world at boarding school is confining, cold, and at times,
brutal. Finn's world, despite its physical dangers and harsh economic
reality, seems liberating to Hilary. Is he romanticizing Finn's life or is
Finn's life truly freer?
On first glimpse, Hilary is struck immediately by the mysterious figure
of Finn on the beach and describes the vision as looking into the mirror at
someone he'd always hoped to be. What does Finn represent to Hilary and how
is it different from Hilary's own image of himself? How are they similar?
As the older Hilary looks back on his life, he evokes an image of
himself that is at once sharply insightful, darkly cynical, and, at times,
naïve. What are some of his blind spots? What does he see as an adult that
he could not see as a teenager?
The reader has little access to Finn's thoughts throughout the novel.
What do you think Finn gets out of his relationship with Hilary?
From Hilary's perspective, formal schooling is mostly useless and serves
only to cement students' social status and privileges. Finn, on the other
hand, is self-taught. What sort of education does Hilary get from his
adventures with Finn?
Hilary often complains about the constant and needy presence of his
schoolmate Reese. What is Reese's role in this story? What, if anything,
does he teach Hilary?
Hilary is interested in the history of the land and the book is strewn
with descriptions of the changing coastline and tides. What is the
significance of these passages? How does Hilary's idea of history change
At the book's climax, Finn reveals that he's not who Hilary thought he
was. Was Hilary responsible for failing to see the real Finn? Would Hilary
have been as infatuated with Finn had he known the truth all along?
Hilary is ultimately found not guilty of any crimes. Is he guilty of any
moral offenses? Or are the events of the novel simply a result of him being
confused and young?
Hilary is consumed with the desire to be Finn, and little-by-little he
transforms himself in Finn's image. To what extent is identity shaped by
close relationships like these? Has Hilary's identity changed by the end of
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Plume.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
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