Title: Life As We Knew It
Author: Susan Beth Pfeffer
Genre: Young Adult, Speculative Fiction
Stand alone or series: Book 1 of the ‘Moon Crush’ trilogy. Both Life As We Knew It and book 2, the dead and the gone can be read as stand alone novels as they are companion books (different characters, different location) and follow the same catastrophic events from different perspectives. The third and final book, titled This World We Live In, is a direct sequel to both companion books and will be released in 2009.
Why did I read this book: A few months back, Meljean Brook wrote a blog post after she finished Life As We Knew It, and I (sucker for apocalypse/post-apocalypse stories that I am) immediately added it to my ‘to buy’ list.
Summary: (from amazon.com)
Miranda’s disbelief turns to fear in a split second when a meteor knocks the moon closer to the earth. How should her family prepare for the future when worldwide tsunamis wipe out the coasts, earthquakes rock the continents, and volcanic ash blocks out the sun? As summer turns to Arctic winter, Miranda, her two brothers, and their mother retreat to the unexpected safe haven of their sunroom, where they subsist on stockpiled food and limited water in the warmth of a wood-burning stove.
Told in journal entries, this is the heart-pounding story of Miranda’s struggle to hold on to the most important resource of all–hope–in an increasingly desperate and unfamiliar world.
I will start off this review by laying all my cards on the table–this is quite possibly the best book I have read in 2008. No hyperbole, no frills. Straight up, this is an affecting book about the end of civilization, with all the emotional gravitas of Cormac McCarthy’s much (overly, in my opinion) lauded The Road, but BETTER because it is tempered with the one thing McCarthy is allergic to: Hope.
Life As We Knew It begins with the mundane events in a sixteen year old girl’s life. Miranda goes to school, she mediates between best friends that are growing apart, she’s angry at her mother for limiting her from doing the things she wants to do. She worries about prom, and boys, and studying for math tests. Then an asteroid hits the moon, knocking its orbit askew and pushing it closer to the earth. Everything in Miranda’s normal life changes. Tidal waves devastate the coastlines and islands. Earthquakes destroy cities and countries, and volcanoes erupt simultaneously worldwide, forever changing the planet’s atmosphere with ash blocking out the sun. Crops die, epidemics wipe out entire populations. Starvation and surviving the bitterly cold winter seems impossible.
And yet, despite the fact that it is the end of the world, Miranda and her family have each other–and they endure.
Part of the reason this book is so effective is because it is written in the first person point of view, told from Miranda’s diary entries. Initially, I was a bit wary with this writing device–there is a necessary degree of kitschy-ness and detachment inherent to the diary device–but all of my worries and prejudgments melted away as the story progressed. Miranda’s voice is incredibly clear and honest, allowing a glimpse into a teenage girl whose life has been stripped from her before she even got a chance to live it. The first person point of view is flawless, allowing readers to feel Miranda’s frustration and anger, her resignation, and ultimately the strength of the love she has for her family. I don’t think I have ever read a teenage heroine that comes across as genuinely as Miranda does–her forced growth and maturation is shocking. Passages like this show her incredible character growth–in a sad, bittersweet kind of way:
It’s funny how sorry I feel for Jon these days. I’m 2 1/2 years older than him and I feel like I got those extra 2 1/2 years to go to school and swim and have friends and he got cheated out of them. And maybe he’ll live 2 1/2 years longer than me, or 20 years, or 50, but he’ll still never have those 2 1/2 years of normal life.
Miranda changes from defiant teen, sneaking out of the house to go for a swim in the pond and sulking over why her younger brother Jon gets all the good food, to understanding that she will do whatever she must to make sure that her family–even if it is just one of them–will survive. It’s incredibly touching.
All of the other characters are filtered through Miranda’s narrative, and I especially loved the relationship between her and her mother. So many diary entries discuss Miranda’s feelings for her mother: how Miranda loves her but hates the situation her family is in; about how her mother does not understand her; about how she alternates between loving and hating her mother. There’s a particular scene involving chocolate chips that is unbelievably poignant and painful to read. And yet, the mother-daughter relationship is, like everything else in this powerful book, so very genuine. And at the end of the day, it is abundantly clear how much Miranda loves her mother and her brothers, and how much Miranda’s mother will sacrifice for her children. Two other relationships that were particularly excellent were those between Miranda and her religious friend Megan, and another with Miranda’s family and neighbor Mrs. Nesbitt.
By the end of this novel, I was in love with each and every character, flawed and frayed as they may be.
In addition to the strength of the characters in this novel, the cataclysmic events of the apocalypse itself are terrifyingly realized. I loved that the end of mankind in Ms. Pfeffer’s tale occurs not because of nuclear war (which is always a popular theme, especially in YA apocalyptic fiction) nor to any fault of humankind at all–it is something external and unstoppable, and every event happens in cause-and-effect chain reaction. What would happen if the moon were knocked closer to the earth? Ms. Pfeffer enumerates each catastrophe with shocking aplomb–nonstop tidal waves, earthquakes, volcanoes, plague, famine, the obliteration of the sun…it is scary how realistically each catastrophe is portrayed.
But perhaps the thing I love the most about this novel–besides the characters and relationships–is how Ms. Pfeffer takes readers through the nitty gritty chaos and everyday life dealing with the apocalypse. The asteroid that altered the moon’s position took mere seconds, but the devastating effects are felt for years, lifetimes, to come. So many End Of The World tales occur in a far off future years after worldwide decimation, dealing with the few surviving humans POST-apocalypse (be it plague or zombies or nuclear war, whatever). I loved seeing Miranda’s quick thinking mother yanking her children out of school, chopping wood in the summer, racing for canned goods and cat food to stock up before the stores run dry. And then during the long cold winter, I loved seeing how the real villain in this story is starvation, how every canned green bean is vital to survival, and how each character begins to sacrifice meals.
Jon was making himself a can of green peas for lunch when all of a sudden he turned to us and said, “How come none of you eat lunch?”
It’s funny. We haven’t in ages, but Jon was always outside with Matt and I guess he figured Matt ate a big breakfast or something. He didn’t know what Mom or I were doing…
I eat every single day. Two months from now, maybe even one month from now, I might eat only every other day.
We’re all alive. We’re all healthy.
These are the good times.
The novel is excruciatingly detailed in each day to day struggle and the slow sapping of physical strength by starvation–yet the true strength of this family lies in the characters’ love for each other, their dependence on each other, and how this emotional strength keeps them all going.
If I had to cite one problem I had with the novel (which isn’t really much of a problem), it would be with how prepared and well-planning Miranda’s mother was. She knew to cash out her bank account, to stock up on food, on firewood, on candles and batteries, and make sure her woodburning stove was working. They were utterly prepared for the upcoming months, and Miranda never had to make any of these sorts of survival decisions (at least, not initially). Plus, the events in this rural setting are largely untouched by any of the problems of death, flooding, etc one would face in a metropolitan area. What would happen had Miranda’s mother not been so clear-headed? Had they not been able to stock up on food and wood before winter settled in?
Of course, now that I have read the dead and the gone, these questions have been answered. (Review to follow this week!)
Life As We Knew It is a powerful examination of the human spirit, even in the grimmest, bleakest hour. There’s no Happy Ever After here, but there is hope, a dash of color at the end of a cold, ashy gray winter. I cannot express how much I loved this book. Easily one of the best–if not THE best–books I have read this year.
Notable Quotes/Parts: Here’s a section that had me near tears:
“Miranda, I want you to know how proud of you I am.”
“Proud of me?” I asked. “Why?”
“For a million reasons,” Dad said. “For being smart and funny and beautiful. For finding swimming when skating didn’t work out. For all the things you’re doing to make your mother’s life easier. For not complaining when you have so much to complain about. For being a daughter any father would be proud of. I knew asking you to be the baby’s godmother was the right thing, and the past few days I’ve realized just how right it is. I’m so glad I’m your father. I love you so much.”
Additional Thoughts: I am a sucker for apocalyptic tales of any variety. Life As We Knew It reminds me a lot of Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (in which a comet hits the earth, causing a string of cataclysmic natural events similar to those in LAWKI–I haven’t read Lucifer’s Hammer in ages, and have just been inspired for a re-read!).
Other favorites I would recommend to people who want more of the literary end of the world would include Stephen King’s The Stand, Robert McCammon’s Swan Song, Max Brook’s World War Z, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, and of course, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Any other favorites you have or would like to recommend?
As I mentioned in the review, I’ve kind of cheated since I have also just finished reading the companion book to LAWKI, the dead and the gone–which I also *highly* recommend (I loved it, in a way different and more complex than the first novel).
Verdict: I haven’t been this moved by a book in a long, long time. This is a new classic, and one that I encourage everyone to read. I cannot wait for This World We Live In later next year.
Rating: 10 Perfection, a classic in its own right
Reading Next: the dead and the gone by Susan Beth Pfeffer