Rosoff’s first novel, How I Live Now (2004) is a cracker of a read for adolescents and adults alike. Daisy, the hard-bitten-but-vulnerable female protagonist retells her experiences of a number of life firsts:
– The first time she lives away from her New York City home, as she spends the summer with her cousins in the English countryside.
– The first time she falls in love, completely and utterly with her cousin Edmond.
– The first time she survives a hostile enemy occupation as World War III breaks out.
This seems like a rather unlikely and crowded premise for a novel that runs to just 224 pages. Rosoff pulls it off, largely through the mesmerising and at times very funny voice of Daisy herself. A typical snippet is her internal monologue sketching her impressions of her cousin Edmond:
Now let me tell you what he looks like before I forget because it’s not exactly what you’d expect from your average fourteen-year-old what with the CIGARETTE and hair that looked like he cut it himself with a hatchet in the dead of night …
The first-person narrative gives the reader the impression that Daisy is hastily confessing her thoughts, feelings and experiences directly to the reader, entrusting us with her most raw and important moments. Beneath the cynical exterior we glimpse the psychological reality of someone who is in fact deeply troubled but feels compelled to keep people at a safe distance:
… for a minute I was so glad I was 15 and from New York City because even though I haven’t actually Seen It All, I have in fact seen more than plenty, and I have one of the best Oh Yeah, This Is So Much What I Usually Do kind of faces of anyone in my crowd.
She is wise to the insincerity and pain of the adult world around her, but touchingly open to those adults who she can see have tenderness and good intentions, even if they are clearly unable to divert disaster. An example of this is her astute observations of Aunt Penn, whose role in international peace negotiations is about to leave the cousins to their own devices:
After looking at me for a few seconds more she put her hand up very gently and pushed the hair off my face in a way that for some reason made me feel incredibly sad and then she said in a regretful grave voice that she was sorry but she had to give a lecture in Oslo at the end of the week on the Imminent Threat of War and had work to do so would I please excuse her? She would only be gone a few days in Oslo and the children would take good care of me. And I thought there’s that old war again, popping up like a bad penny.
What follows is a brief idyll as Daisy and her cousins romp through the beautiful countryside fishing and picnicking and swimming, living off the land and the occasional trip to a local village for supplies. Daisy and Edmond develop feelings for each other without the restraining presence of adults. Meanwhile, Rosoff’s heroine slowly dismantles her hardened, New-York-Teen exterior, learning to enjoy life and perhaps even accept herself.
Then war intervenes. What follows is an intense tale of survival and responsibility and incredible faith.
Starring Saoirse Ronan (Atonement, The Lovely Bones) and George Mackay as Edmond, Kevin McDonald’s adaptation of Rosoff’s novel stays true to the spirit and the outline of the tale.
Ronan is very believable as a spoilt and self-absorbed New York teen who is pushed to use her determination for higher purposes than diet and appearance by the outbreak of World War III. Responsible for keeping her young cousin Piper alive and for finding her way back home, Daisy is a heroine who must keep her wits about her.
The film makes some changes to Rosoff’s original tale – as seems to happen in the transition from text to screen. Edmond is older. A brother who appears in the book is completely left out. Daisy’s seven-year-long tale is abridged to about a year. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the film’s rendering of Daisy’s harrowing journey. The English countryside is used to great effect and makes a strong contrast to the devastation of war as the tale unfolds. MacDonald’s adaptation kept Rosoff’s approach that allowed her heroine both a great love story and a good head on her shoulders.
Apparently, some reviewers have claimed that the love story in this film is ‘about incest’ and there has been some controversy about this aspect of the narrative.
Just for the record, folks, anyone who has read L.M. Montgomery’s classic novels for Young Adults, including the Anne of Green Gables series could tell you that there are PLENTY of cousins falling in love and marrying each other there. It was once not uncommon.
Meg Rosoff herself has been taken by surprise by this reading of the film. In an interview she says:
“I really take exception to the whole notion of incest when it comes to the book. Daisy and Edmond are cousins who’ve never met each other and who’ve grown up in separate parts of the world. Call me naïve, but it never even occurred to me when I was writing the book that it was going to be contentious. If an editor had said to me, ‘Ooh, that’s really going to affect your sales’, I’d have taken it out and made them second cousins or something. It wasn’t a big thing for me. And, as I said years ago when the book first came out, I come from thousands of years of Eastern European Jews, where everyone married their cousins. Plenty of people still do marry their cousins – it’s legal almost everywhere in America.”