There are so many similarities between Meg Rosoff's multiple award-winning How I Live Now and Elizabeth Hand's Illyria that I've decided to blog about both teen novels in one post. Be forewarned that there are some spoilers ahead, although I won't give away very much.
Both are rather dark books that centre around a sexual relationship between 14 or 15-year-old cousins who get separated by circumstances beyond their control (adults, basically) and then reunite years later and affirm their true love. Both are told in first person from the point of view of the female cousin.
In How I Live Now, Daisy is sent from New York City to the English countryside to stay with four cousins whom she has never met. A world war breaks out - this is set slightly in the future - and Daisy's aunt is unable to return to her family, so the kids are on their own. The English cousins have some telepathic abilities, especially Edmond and his twin, Isaac. This magical element is seamlessly woven into the tale. Daisy and Edmond fall into a passionate relationship but the war intervenes.
In Illyria, Maddy and her cousin Rogan are both the youngest members of large families living in side-by-side houses in Yonkers, New York. Their fathers are identical twins. Unlike the vividly-present siblings in How I Live Now, Maddy's six sisters and Rogan's six brothers are barely described, wispy as ghosts. Both sets of parents are vaguely around; they are mostly obstacles that force Rogan and Maddy to greater secrecy in their romance.
The magical element in Illyria is a toy theatre that Maddy and Rogan discover within the walls of the attic, revealed accidently through some rough-housing before or after sex. Although their families have a long history of association with the theatre, nothing really explains the presence of the always-lit stage. The toy comes back into the story at the end, but in such a way that it only made me feel sad and I don't think that is what the author was going for.
Both books feature a troubled protagonist who self-harms. Daisy is anorexic. Rogan is addicted to drugs. Over the course of their stories, they heal themselves, but Rogan's struggle is necessarily offstage, since Maddy the narrator gets little news of him, and so the impact of his triumph is muted.
Maddy and Rogan are separated for decades before their eventual reunion. Maddy was sent to London to study theatre and makes a career as an actor. She describes her life as one long audition, the emptiness of which depressed me. At the end, I was left wondering, "Is that all there is?" Is Maddy nothing without Rogan? I wanted a little more magic, not a patched-up better-late-than-never romance.
The middle part of How I Live Now is an exciting survival story. Edmond is psychically damaged by the horrors of war, so when Daisy and Edmond reunite after about six years apart, there are still hurdles for them to face in their relationship. The ending is charged with hope for the human spirit. In my battle-of-the-books, How I Live Now wins by a mile.