Author Meg Rosoff has come up with another thoughtful YA novel, "What I Was." Generally, boys are not known for intensity of emotional relationships with other boys, without becoming the story of an overtly gay, perhaps one-sided or not, relationship. "What I Was" never commits to identifying the protagonist Hilary's attraction to the mysterious boy, Finn, as gay, neither in Hilary's mind, nor in their experiences. But it is an underlying tension in the plot and keeps the reader wondering throughout, even into the epilogue, where Hilary reminisces as an old, never-married bachelor on his experiences as a boy at St. Oswald's.
Rosoff chooses an intriguing setting for her story, St. Oswald's School on the southeast coast of England, one of the austere, ancient boarding schools that seem to dot the country, and it contributes to the mood and dynamics that propel the story along. Finn, about fourteen, lives alone in a fishing shack along the periodically almost submerged headlands, and it is his grace, simple lifestyle and taciturn manner that intrigues Hilary, about sixteen, son of a wealthy family, who has been expelled from several boarding schools before St. Oswald's. Hilary is one of those boys who are recognized as 'different' by other boys, and his roommates delight in tormenting him. Meeting Finn, who does not go to school but has somehow escaped the notice of any authorities, makes life more tolerable, even interesting, for Hilary, who cuts school as often as he can to spend time with Finn. Finn becomes alarmingly ill at one point, and the story makes a revelation that adds a layer of complexity to what the reader may think about the nature of the special relationship that has been so cherished by Hilary. It is perhaps fundamentally unknowable, but invites some thought.