When I Was Older
I skimmed When I Was Older a few years ago when it first came out in hardcover, and even though I didn’t read all of it, it stayed with me. I kept going back to it and re-reading certain scenes. So when it came out in paperback, I bought it and this time read it cover to cover. It was then that I realized what a thoughtful and insightful writer Freymann-Weyr is.
Sophie Merdinger has yet to truly deal with her little brother Erhart’s death of two years ago. Erhart died of leukemia, and Sophie’s family fell apart at the same time. Her father couldn’t deal with the death of his son and coped by working more and having an affair. As a result, her parents divorced, and Sophie has been living with a constant simmering rage at her father. Her older sister Freddie deals with her father’s disloyalties and affectionate neglect in the opposite way. Rather than avoid him or confront him, she tries to please him and draw closer to him. Needless to say, Sophie and Freddie don’t always get along.
While she is navigating the difficult waters of her family relations and the pressures of school, Sophie also has to deal with the fact that she’s forgetting Erhart. She can’t always remember what he looked like or what they did together even though she tries to keep his memory alive and respected by having on-purpose memories. When Sophie’s mother starts to date again, Sophie meets Francis, the son of her mother’s boyfriend. Francis is in a unique position to help Sophie. His mother died when he was eight. But Francis wants more than friendship from Sophie.
Sophie is an interesting character: smart, deeply introspective, and very aware of what exactly is going on around her. She has no illusions about anyone – especially her father – and she doesn’t suffer fools gladly. It was quite interesting to watch how she relates to her father. She sees him and all of his faults very clearly and is immune to the personal charm he uses on everyone to get his way.
Sophie is also afraid of losing herself in the process of growing up. She sees the other girls around her become less and less unique and independent as they get involved with boys, and she has a horror that she might do the same if she let a boy in her life. For this reason, she’s pushed all the interested boys away, and she’s prepared to do the same to Francis.
Francis is such an enjoyable character, so grown up and self-possessed. In many ways this book is about the difference between thinking about things and feeling things. Sophie has no problems thinking about who she is and what has happened to her, but she will not allow herself to feel much besides anger and disillusionment. On-purpose memories are okay because she can control them. Random memories are too overwhelming, so she squelches them with the excuse that they are disrespectful. Francis, on the other hand, has no problems thinking or feeling. He dealt with his mother’s death by getting a tear tattooed under his left eye. The tattoo forces him and everyone else to deal with his emotions. When Sophie meets him she can’t help but stare at it, but she tries to hide her staring. Francis lets it go for awhile and then finally grabs her hand and places it on the tattoo. “It’s just skin,” he says. This is a guy who is unfazed by the randomness of life. A guy who is who he is. I loved him.
When I Was Older is not a very long book, but it is quite thoughtful. It raises a number of questions and doesn’t solve all of them, particularly the ones about how Sophie should relate to her father. It’s not a romance, but is closer to chick lit in substance including its first person point of view.
Freymann-Weyr has gotten a lot of buzz this year for her newest book, My Heartbeat, the story of a girl who becomes involved with a boy who is bisexual. When I Was Older is written for a slightly younger audience and does not deal with sexuality except in a peripheral way. It has less of an edge. But this is not an ordinary story, for all that it’s not controversial. It’s urban, it’s current, and it’s relevant. I will be looking forward to seeing what this author comes up with next. She’s definitely not just an average writer and should not be lost amidst the plethora of series books for teens.