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Finding Myself
Toby Litt
London: Hamish Hamilton, 2003.
£14.99, 320 pages, ISBN 0241141559.

Debra Boyle
California State University Long Beach

There are so many things I liked about this book that I really don't know where to begin. I've never read anything quite like it, and while I can't say it was "unputdownable," it was certainly compelling, both during and after reading. Every component of the book is both transparent and tricky at the same time. Like the old "Slinky" toys (especially the rainbow ones), we can see the winding spring pushing it forward, but are fascinated by its changing colors and shapes nonetheless.

First, the format of the book needs some explanation. It is presented as the "manuscript" of one Victoria About which has recently been marked up by her editor, friend and fictional character Simona Princip. Simona's remarks appear in handwritten blue ink to distinguish her comments and advice from the main body of the text. Simona's notes constantly change from the adversarial to the editorial to the self-protective. In fact, one of the remarkable things about this book is the simultaneous development of Simona's character both inside and outside the narrative. The reader can really see the conflicts between editor and author ("Mr. Overdale denies that he has, or has ever had, an STD. We both know he's lying [you, I believe know from personal experience], but the lawyers don't think this is safe." [p. 27]), editor and character ("I wasn't at all attracted, you silly thing. I always knew exactly how I wanted to come across." [p. 49]); and editor and friend ("This goes too far. You can say he was going to leave me, but not accuse him of anything horrendous." [p. 48]).

Second, the "plot" is framed as an idea for a "reality book" where the author, Victoria, chooses a number of her friends and acquaintances to live under the same roof on an isolated beach in England. As with most "reality" arrangements, the supposed interest is generated by the constantly changing relationships among the characters, or "cast," as Victoria herself puts it. She is also aware that her role as "director" will set her up for a role in the action, that of "deliciously wicked or wickedly delicious" villainess [p. 9]. Victoria also shows us a little of the process itself: character sketching, journaling, musing, and (in this case) inglorious and messy ending.

The "Finding Myself" of the title is another small irony—Victoria really loses herself in her multiple and changing roles, only to find out that she has alienated everyone (including herself) through her manipulative behavior. In fact, editor Simona suggests changing the title from "Finding Myself" to "From the Lighthouse" in homage to Virginia Woolf, another persona in which Victoria loses herself from time to time. Even though the primary format of the book is an intimate journal, it's all really about representing and representation.

The characters (or actors) all represent one thing or another in modern society: Cecile, the chic European woman d'un certain âge; Simona and William, the middle-aged academic couple; Ingrid "Cleangirl" and Henry, the thirty-something couple raising their young-but-wise daughter; Fleur, the hopeless sister and Alan, the hopeless bachelor whom Victoria will try to bring together (again); Marcia, the black lesbian in a wheelchair (for political correctness) and X, Victoria's unnamed marginally supportive lover. While the characters generally live up to "type," however, Victoria does take some risks in her planned manipulation of them.

Briefly, the most interesting relationships are as follows. Victoria is trying to break up William and Simona on the basis that William is an obnoxious alcoholic who is no good for her friend Simona. William lives up to type by huffing out of the house, going to the pubs, returning drunk, etc. Simona is constantly in a will-I? or won't-I? conflict with herself about leaving William. Victoria is leaning heavily on Simona to leave William, until she sees (over the secretly-installed spy cameras) Simona hit William. Victoria is shocked and confused by this and must re-think her "plan" involving Simona.

Victoria is also trying to stir the pot by nominally breaking up with X and finding excuses to be alone with Henry, her friend "Cleangirl"'s husband. For the most part, it fails miserably—or does it? Henry proclaims his love several times at the end, but in such exaggerated terms that we suspect he's making fun of Victoria. He is leaving Ingrid though, so we can't know for sure.

Fleur is Victoria's overly-religious, Laura-Ashley-print-devotee sister. The relationship between them is more complex, with each taking turns at being the "victim," giving and receiving the silent treatment, forming alliances with others, and so forth. Given its complexity, it is really difficult to tell which sister is the strong one in the relationship. While Victoria is busy trying to bring Fleur and Alan together again (it failed the first time she tried), Fleur is one of the most active co-conspirators in punishing Victoria by locking her up in the attic.

Some interesting beginnings are observed in developing relationships between Edith, the twelve-year-old, and X, Victoria's lover. Victoria is hoping that Edith will expand her first crush, but Edith develops her first non-parental adult relationship with Cecile, her friend and advocate. Moreover, Victoria is aware of her idol worship of Cecile and her strong desire to develop a deep friendship (or more?) with Cecile. This relationship, where Victoria tries her hardest to succeed, is the one in which she fails most miserably.

Naturally, as the primary manipulator, Victoria is the character who will ultimately be manipulated. When her "guests" discover that she has installed spy cameras and microphones (gasp!), they lock her in the attic, where the video equipment is located, to teach her a lesson. Victoria believes she still has an advantage, though: her guests disconnect the video cameras, but not the microphones. When she is liberated, she acts and writes according to the conversations she's "overheard." Although Victoria is surprised to find that the others left the microphones on deliberately for a little malicious playacting, the reader is not. Yet, as the "writer," doesn't Victoria have the ultimate power to manipulate? Or perhaps it is Simona, the "editor," who has the final say?

The cleverness of the book can be analogized from one of the shorter subplots. Edith, the fresh-faced youngster takes over the bedroom of the now-deceased daughter of the house's actual owners (Victoria and her group are renting, of course). Edith's behavior is becoming spooky, as evidenced by her withdrawal from her parents and her habit of dressing in the dead girl's long dresses. Then, she sees the ghost. The funny thing is that the ghost looks like a child's ghost costume, basically a sheet with holes cut out for eyes. No one believes her, of course, because a real ghost surely wouldn't look like a child's Halloween ghost costume. At Edith's insistence—as well as that of her ally, Cecile—Victoria calls up the owners of the house who acknowledge that their daughter had indeed dressed up like a ghost one Halloween and they had seen her "in costume" several times since her death. Victoria, ever the skeptic, disbelieves the whole thing until the ghost passes through her.

In conclusion, we've found the rhythm of the book: the setup, the expected outcome, the perceived outcome, and Victoria's perceived outcome. Like the "Slinky" toy walking down the stairs by itself, this book moves through twists and turns until it ultimately twists itself out.

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