A (Not-So) Simple Twist of Fate

h1 January 22nd, 2007 by jules

just-in-case.gifhow-i-live-now.gifWhen Meg Rosoff brought us How I Live Now in August ’04, I was pretty much floored, particularly by the stirring and unforgettable ending (the flowers, oh the flowers!) and generally by the indelible, singular voice of the novel’s protagonist, Daisy. How I Live Now was raw and smart and incisive and possessed what Guardian Unlimited Books aptly called (here in July ’06) a “dark lyricism . . . {Rosoff} writes outstandingly about vulnerable people.” (And, I might add, who can forget Piper as well?) . . .

In her second offering, Just In Case (published by Wendy Lamb Books; August 2006; my source: library copy), Rosoff once again impresses with grace and insight, bringing us a tale that is — at its heart — driven by philosophical musings on fate and mortality.

“I wanted to write a book about a character who wasn’t sure where reality began and ended,” Rosoff has said about the fifteen-year old protagonist of Just In Case, David. In the book’s opening, David swoops in and stops his toddler brother from falling out of an open window and is single-handedly responsible for keeping him from plunging to his death. He’s mighty scarred by this, to say the very least, and this marks the beginning of his fixation on fate and his attempts to outwit the devious, little force of nature he believes it to be. He changes his name from David to Justin Case and, essentially, creates a brand spankin’ new identity for himself. Interspersed throughout Justin’s narrative is commentary from the voice of Fate. Yes, Fate, speaking in quite the pithy manner in short chapters with bold-face type: “Ask any comedian, tennis player, chef. Timing is everything.” Fate’s got its eye on David, he believes, and is out to outwit him.

Skipping out of school altogether for weeks at a time, Justin — alongside Agnes, a hipster, older photographer who uses Justin’s philosophical crisis as fodder for a “doomed youth” art exhibit — eventually witnesses a freak accident at an airport. While Agnes wonders if they were alive “because of being blessed or in spite of being cursed,” Justin is convinced that fate is still out to get him. And after shacking up with Agnes, Justin — who “appeared utterly incapable of ordering the universe in a reassuring manner; had trouble differentiating hunger from loneliness, anger from love, fear from desire” — loses his virginity and also proceeds to fall deeply and madly in love. Needless to say (considering Justin’s precarious state of mind), this doesn’t go so smashingly well. Agnes — who, fortunately, is not drawn as the one-note, utterly thoughtless character she could have become — is still unable to understand Justin’s troubles. Things go from bad to worse, and “{t}he longer {Justin} sulked, the more he felt like a fool, but he was unable to turn back with grace.”

Justin has an imaginary dog, obviously a coping device, who can only be seen by those who possess a true sympathy for Justin — or at least those who attempt to understand his worldview. Clearly, he’s not only having this undeniable philosophical crisis, ruminating as he does on the speculative nature of reality and mortality, but he is also depressed. “{Justin} has a tendency to see the dark underside of life a lot more clearly than the cheerful side,” Rosoff has stated. “I remember years ago having a friend who was very depressed, and he said to me, ‘I see the world much more accurately than non-depressed people do, it’s just that it’s not a very productive way of looking at life.'” Welcome to Justin’s mind. He is as painfully vulnerable as Daisy is self-centered (before her transformation); he’s had a terrifying brush with death and is suddenly and vividly aware of life’s tendencies towards loss and calamity.

Fortunately for Justin, he befriends the noble-hearted Peter Prince (who, at their high school, has a “diplomatic immunity from harassment based on his intellect and his good nature”), eventually moving in with Peter’s family after his disastrous attempt at a relationship with Agnes (Peter’s mother, not wanting to “preach morality and abstinence at every turn,” instead finds herself utterly incapable of reaching out to her son, bringing to my mind a slightly-less-intense version of Allison Janney’s character, Barbara Fitts, in “American Beauty”). Peter is a lovely, lovely character (don’t I now have to use “lovely” once in each review?), my second favorite ’06 sidekick YA character after Hassan in John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines. “Peter had the gift of moving quietly, of taking up so little space in a room that Justin often forgot the other boy existed, leaping startled to his feet when Peter made a noise,” Rosoff writes. “{Justin} began to see how successfully Peter’s modesty deflected attention from whatever talents he possessed; the world seemed to flow around him silently, like water around a minnow.”

In the afore-linked BookBrowse interview, Rosoff states, “I’ve always been a little bit obsessed by the idea of ‘what if?’ — the times you turn left instead of right and it changes your whole life.” Rosoff has also shared in interviews her unfortunate cancer diagnosis and her younger sister’s losing battle with the same disease. “Every day a piano doesn’t fall on my head is good luck. So I am terribly worried now because things seem to be going awfully well. I spend a lot of time planning my funeral,” she stated in the ’06 Guardian interview. At the great risk of sounding like I’m summarizing her and her writing based on a publicity bio and a few interviews I’ve read, in this novel she seems to be channeling her unease, her very real experiences with tragedy, and her (understandable) pessimism — bringing us Justin, an immensely complicated protagonist. He’s not only intense, but he’s observant, perceptive, and sharp:

Later that day Justin thought back on their conversation and wondered whether the things that killed you were not only the crashes and explosions from without, but the bombs buried deep inside, the bombs ticking quietly in your bowel or your liver or your heart, year after year, that you yourself had swallowed, or absorbed, and allowed to grow.

And in the end — when things take a turn for the very worst (and not just in Justin’s mind) — he must make a choice between further despair and final defeat and, ultimately, hope. While readers wait for Justin’s weighty decision, his preternaturally wise toddler brother (emotionally and intellectually precocious children seem to be fixtures in Rosoff’s work, as with Piper in How I Live Now and Dorothea, Peter’s eleven-year-old younger sister, in Just In Case) ruminates on fate. Now, mind you, he walks around exclaiming things like “duck!”, though we as readers are privy to the fact that he’s actually pondering in his head in this manner:

“I’d like to see my brother . . . I’d like to tell him my side of the story, the side he used to know but has forgotten. I’d like to tell him to forget the big scary issues and concentrate on the ones he can control, like what he gets to eat, and whether to look at a book. Life is easier if you break it down into little segments, little desires and needs you can satisfy right now . . . A piano might fall on your head . . . but it almost might not. And in the meantime you never know. Something nice might happen.”

And in addition to bringing us a thought-provoking tale about such weighty issues as chance and life’s fortunes, Rosoff also completely nails the alpha females who firmly lodge themselves in the dominant social hierarchy of high schools today, the teen girls with their “hip-rolling sexually satisfied struts” who communicate, “{w}e run this principality.” Rosoff writes about one particular girl eyeing Justin: With the “single flash of her perfect almond-shaped eyes and a flare of her exquisite nostrils, she annihilated him.”

In her Random House bio, Rosoff states, “{a}fter a fifteen-year stint in advertising (which I recommend to no one) my youngest sister died of breast cancer. And I thought if I was going to write a book, I’d better do it soon because life is short.” For whatever reason she writes, I’m grateful she does. Rosoff’s absorbing, pensive additions to the YA landscape have made it a bit more interesting since her appearance.

2 comments to “A (Not-So) Simple Twist of Fate”

  1. Wow, great review, J. I admit, I’ve been avoiding this one because I thought the premise was goofy and contrived. But now I guess I’ll have to give it a shot. *sigh* One more for the pile…

  2. I loved your review. I am teaching this book right now, I think it’s great. Cheers!

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