When I Was Better

Fiction - Historical - Event/Era
554 Pages
Reviewed on 07/11/2022
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    Book Review

Reviewed by Asher Syed for Readers' Favorite

When I Was Better by Rita Bozi is a historical epic that follows the lives of a small family of three up against some of the biggest, most destructive events in Eastern Europe's history. Following a brief prologue, the book begins in mid-century Hungary with István telling his wife Teréza that he is fleeing the country alone. The book then dances between timelines to show us how this came to pass. István's 'uncooperative' and 'non-compliant' dissent under the occupation of the then Soviet Union is detailed, as is the courtship and relationship between István and Teréza amidst political and social turmoil. When István flees and Teréza is left behind with their infant son Zolti, the true test of her resilience and the strength of the marriage becomes the focal point as their years of separation draw out. “She’d been an accomplice since the day István escaped. Guilty for being a Catholic, guilty for being a self-determined citizen, guilty for being a Hungarian citizen in a Soviet world.”

When I Was Better is not an easy book to get through. Rita Bozi does well in breathing life into her two main characters and those surrounding them, and from a technical standpoint the writing is well executed and the story well told. The difficulty for me as a reader was twofold. I did not like István and I had a hard time respecting Teréza. Despite all of their admirable intentions in fighting the good fight, they are viewed through the lens of a modern perspective. I had to keep reminding myself this is historical fiction and the picture painted of a time when married couples just stuck it out was not always going to be a rosy one. The scenes depicting their advocacy and resistance are the best parts of the novel, and the page-turning is fueled by little Zolti and wanting to know what the future holds as we were introduced to him before he is born. The ending is hopeful although not happy, but for those who enjoy literary fiction with an authentic representation of the period, this should tick all of the boxes. Recommended.