Life As We Knew It, by Susan Beth Pfeffer

>> Friday, July 11, 2008

TITLE: Life As We Knew It
AUTHOR: Susan Beth Pfeffer

PAGES: 339
PUBLISHER: Scholastic

SETTING: Contemporary Pennsylvania
TYPE: Young Adult / Apocalyptic Fiction
SERIES: There's a related book, taking place at the same time as the action of this one, but in another location: The Dead and the Gone.

REASON FOR READING: I was intrigued by a review of The Dead and the Gone at Dear Author.

No shops. No TV.

No electricity. No daylight.

No idea if your family is alive or dead...

Could you survive?

An asteroid will hit the moon at 9.30 this evening. The astronomers say there's nothing to worry about.

What if they're wrong?
THE PLOT: An asteroid is about to hit the moon. It's supposed to be nothing more than a fun, educational event to watch through a telescope... see how a new crater is created, enjoy some natural fireworks, that kind of thing. But it turns out that the asteroid was much denser than astronomers supposed, so it kicks the moon off its normal orbit. And soon the effects of the changes in the gravitational pull of the moon are being felt: massive tsunamis kill millions on the coast, earthquakes shake up unlikely places.... and that's just the beginning.

Narrated by 16-year-old Miranda through her diary entries, Life As We Knew It shows us the aftermath of the asteroid hit from the point of view of one family living in north-eastern Pennsylvania.

MY THOUGHTS: Wow! Just... wow! I think this book is going to be one of the highlights of the year. I love end-of-the-world catastrophe movies (as much as I love romance in my reading, I'd much rather go watch a disaster movie than a chick flick), but I always end up wanting to see more detail about the everyday things that are going on around our heroes as they're involved in whatever outlandish and dangerous adventure the moviemakers have come up with.

This is exactly what we get here. The book has a narrowish focus, which is something that I might have considered a weakness before I read it, but which I ended up considering one of its main strengths. We know a bit of the horrors that are happening in other places, but we are not seeing them. We spend all the book isolated in an area which didn't bear the brunt of the natural catastrophes, but which is still suffering. So what we experience are the everyday kind of horrors: the lack of food, the petrol shortage, the cold, the disease, and most of all, the isolation and hoplessness of not knowing. Communications have been cut, so Miranda (and so, us) can't have a very accurate idea of what's going on in the whole world or whether there is any hope, whether somehow things are improving somewhere. Basically, whether there is going to be a future at all.

This narrow focus, which actually gets narrower and narrower as the book advances, adds up to a claustrophobic feel at times, which intensifies the very well done family relationships. Miranda's family is a good one, not at all dysfunctional. They all clearly care about each other, but four people spending months in close proximity are going to clash, however much love there is there. The trick is to still show that love through the discussions and tension, and Pfeffer does so well.

I especially liked how Laura, Miranda's mother comes across. We're seeing her only through the eyes of Miranda, but Pfeffer succeeds in showing her beyond her mother role. You can glimpse the real woman there, worried about her children, yes, but also a person in her own right, with a wicked sense of humour (I loved the scene where they finally get radio reception after months of silence and there's an inane speech made by the president "from his ranch in Texas", full of platitudes about how they've turned the corner and how everything's going to be better. Laura's reaction: "The idiot is still alive, and he's still an idiot!") and her own romantic interests. She's not perfectly strong all the time... there are fights in which she's just as irrational as Miranda, and you can certainly see she almost reaches the end of her rope sometimes.

As for Miranda, she's an excellent narrator. She's sixteen, and feels sixteen. A mature enough sixteen, yes, but she's not a grown-up, and this is reflected in her concerns. Obviously, as the situation worsens, she becomes more and more worried about serious, life-threatening issues, but she never stops caring about things as her education (what happens if there's no school, will she be able to get to a good college? Will there be any good colleges left?) and boys.

I really liked that these are common people, not highly competent MacGyver types who are able to jury-rig a generator out of an old battery, some wire and a piece of chewing gum. They do the best they can with their limited resources, and they do go beyond the limits of what they would have thought they could do, but it's believable, and they behave as you or I (assuming you're not a MacGyver type, either) would.

Something else I thought was excellently done was how there's an ominous feel about certain things that are going on in town, how people are not being Pollyanna-ish nice and sweet and solidary, but that this is hardly explicit. There's the say Sammi finds to leave, there's the fear that women are not safe being alone in town, there's the hospital guard who creeps Miranda out... we don't actually see much happening, but the suggestion is enough to create a mood. Very effective stuff, especially because what one imagines can be worse than reality.

As you can imagine, the whole book has a dark feel to it, partly because characters you care about do die, but actually, mostly because the difficulty in staying hopeful about the situation. Fortunately, there is no waving of magic wands at the end. The moon doesn't spontaneously go back to where it was, it doesn't turn out that things were nowhere near as disastrous as people had thought. And yet, you close the book feeling optimistic. As the book finishes, you trust that at least there is going to be a tomorrow and that people will tirelessly work until they find ways to deal with the changed circumstances. And that was good enough for me.

Do give this a try, even if you're not generally a YA reader. I'm not (other than the Harry Potter series), and I'm very glad I made an exception for this one.



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