Reading guide for What I Was by Meg Rosoff

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

What I Was

By Meg Rosoff

What I Was
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • Hardcover: Jan 2008,
    224 pages.
    Paperback: Jan 2009,
    224 pages.

    Publication Information

  • Rate this book


Book Reviewed by:
Lucia Silva

Buy This Book

About this Book

Reading Guide Questions Print Excerpt

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 free—he 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 Finn—less perceptible in the hut than in the outside world—ultimately 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.



Discussion Questions
  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. 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?
  5. The reader has little access to Finn's thoughts throughout the novel. What do you think Finn gets out of his relationship with Hilary?
  6. 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?
  7. 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?
  8. 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 over time?
  9. 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?
  10. 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?
  11. 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 the story?

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.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" backstories
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year
  • More about membership!
Member Benefits

Join Now!

Check the advantages!
Just $10 for 3 months or $35 for a year

    •  
    • FREE
    • MEMBER
    • Range of media reviews for each book
    • Excerpts of all featured books
    • Author bios, interviews and pronunciations
    • Browse by genre
    • Book club discussions
    • Book club advice and reading guides
    • BookBrowse reviews and "beyond the book" back-stories
    •  
    • Reviews of notable books ahead of publication
    •  
    • Free books to read and review (US Only)
    •  
    • Browse for the best books by time period, setting & theme
    •  
    • Read-alike suggestions for thousands of books and authors
    •  
    • 'My Reading List" to keep track of your books
    •  

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: The Pope and Mussolini
    The Pope and Mussolini
    by David I. Kertzer
    The Pope and Mussolini is a riveting account of the parallel rise to power of the authoritarian ...
  • Book Jacket: The Promise
    The Promise
    by Ann Weisgarber
    Canadian author, Lucy Maud Montgomery of Anne of Green Gables fame, once wrote that "...all things ...
  • Book Jacket: Black Moon
    Black Moon
    by Kenneth Calhoun
    The popularity of book-turned-movie World War Z and television series The Walking Dead points to a ...

First Impressions

Members read and review books ahead
of publication. See what they think
in First Impressions!

Books that
expand your
horizons.

Visitors can view a lot of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only

Find out more.

Book Discussions
Book Jacket

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry
by Gabrielle Zevin

Published Apr. 2014

Join the discussion!

Win this book!
Win The Steady Running of the Hour

The Steady Running of the Hour

"Exciting, emotionally engaging and amibtious. I loved it!" - Kate Mosse

Enter

Word Play

Solve this clue:

I T T O A Eye

and be entered to win..

Books thatinspire you.Handpicked.

Books you'll stay up all night reading; books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, books that will expand your mind and inspire you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.