Shannon (Giraffe Days)'s Reviews > Life As We Knew It

Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer
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's review
Apr 19, 2010

liked it
bookshelves: 2010, apocalyptic-or-post-apocalyptic, ya
Read in April, 2010

I've always loved apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stories. One of my favourite books, Obernewtyn, introduced me to this genre, among other things, back in primary school and since then I've read them more-or-less as I've come across them. I particularly liked Jean Urr's Plague 99 and its sequel, Come Lucky April, as well as John Marsden's Tomorrow series (I really must re-read all these some day!). When I was studying for my teaching degree, we had one assignment for English that involved putting together a collection of books, poetry, plays or movies and non-fiction that were linked by a theme, for a theme-based English course (that's one way you can teach, or structure, high school English - of course, university classes are all theme-based!). The theme that I settled on was (poorly) titled "No one to help me but myself" (which is grammatically incorrect, I know. It should be "but me"). I was quite pleased with the result, and until I started putting it together I hadn't really consciously noticed this trend. From Tomorrow When the War Began to Life of Pi, from The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle to Coraline and Turtles Can Fly (the film), they all had one thing in common: kids, of all ages, alone, either with no adults or no "functioning" adults, surviving and drawing upon resources they never realised they had. I find these stories - and apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic stories are excellent vehicles for this theme because the rules of society, family structure and anything familiar are totally disrupted - to be symbolic and politicised but also highlights how resourceful and amazing kids can be, how strong and resilient and vulnerable all at the same time.

Hence, Life as We Knew It sounded right up my alley. And this isn't a bad book, far from it. But it just didn't work for me. It certainly doesn't fit the theme I was talking about, and I'm not saying that's a bad thing either, just that it didn't grip me like the above examples did.

It's present day America (during the Bush Jr years) and people are getting excited about seeing an asteroid hit the moon. But no one predicts what happens: the collision moves the moon off its axis, pushing it closer to the earth.

The consequences start almost immediately. Wild weather patterns, including tornadoes and giant tsunamis that devastate coastal cities like New York and Sydney; extreme heat followed by volcano eruptions where volcanoes had never erupted in human memory before, covering the sky with grey ash and blocking out the sun. School is cancelled. The phone rarely works. The electricity comes on intermittently until disappearing altogether. Food is scarce. There's no gas for the furnace or the stove. No petrol for vehicles. Everything grinds to a halt and every family must look out for itself.

For Miranda and her family - her mother, her older brother Matt and her younger brother Jonny - every day becomes a matter of survival, just like for everyone else. No ones if things will get better. They just try to plan for the next season and take joy in small pleasures that they once would never have noticed. They're on a race for survival though: is it possible that things will improve before their food runs out? Why bother at all? Maybe they should sacrifice themselves so that one of them can make it. But what future will there be? Will it be worth living?

Narrated by Miranda in diary entries, she's at one and the same time a bland, almost boring character and a very well-written archetype of what I assume is a typical American teenager. Her world has an incredibly narrow focus - she rarely if ever thinks about the rest of the world, let alone beyond her own town or state. She goes through a noble character growth, moving from self-interested, argumentative teen to someone who almost kills herself caring for her family and putting them first. But she is very much an observer, a passive narrator and not much of a protagonist. Her mother and brother Matt manage everything, they think of what's needed and do it. It's not until they fall ill and Miranda alone must keep them alive and do what needs to be done, that she really grows up (which fits into my theme, just barely).

The diary structure was perfect for the story, enabling a simple past tense narrative that had the suspense and unpredictability, as well as the feel of Now, of present tense. It's uneventful, since it's a survival story, and that would normally have been something I would have loved. I don't need flashy action or melodrama. But in a way, using Miranda's voice and her narrow perceptions was limiting, and she wasn't a character I bonded to in any way. I barely liked her. She's a little too obvious, as a narrative device, but then again I can see her appeal to many teens. It's a case of "I probably would have enjoyed this more if I'd read it as a teen", which bothers me. Sometimes it's a simple matter of having read too much over the years that's better, by comparison.

Also, as much as it's understandable - especially considering the lack of communication - that the rest of the world barely gets a mention. Still, it was alienating. Here I am, as a reader, involved in her story but I'm also one of the people Miranda never thinks of. It's not a rational feeling but it lurked nonetheless.

The interesting thing is, we could be facing these very climactic changes - and we already are, if not to the same extremes (yet?). But they will be and are changes that we have directly or indirectly caused, whereas in Life as We Knew It, it's nothing to do with us. It wasn't our fault. We are absolved of the big Fuck Up. I prefer more responsible apocalyptic fiction, yes I do. I just feel that it teaches us more, either through metaphor, allegory, symbolism or the hypothetical (like Fantasy), or a more direct approach. It becomes more like a mental puzzle then. It was interesting seeing this hypothesis play out, but at the same time, it wasn't interesting at all. At the end of the day, I was glad to finish it so it was finished, but I don't see myself picking up any of the other books. At the end of the day, the general premise doesn't interest me as much as it did in theory, now I've read this first book.
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Comments (showing 1-3)

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Lisa Vegan Shannon, I adored this book. I think if you keep reading, you'll find that The Dead and the Gone has some significant differences from this book, or perhaps you won't feel that way. I'm anxiously awaiting my library's purchase of This World We Live In, even though many readers, even though some readers who loved the first two books are not as fond of the third book.

I can't really disagree with anything you've said, but somehow none of it bothered me at all. I was completely engrossed, in this first book in particular. The second book is much grimmer, and I loved it too.

Shannon (Giraffe Days) Yes I think I should give the next book a try. I didn't think this was badly written or anything, it just failed to really grab me. But, you've convinced me to try book 2. Not sure when though...

I can't really disagree with anything you've said, but somehow none of it bothered me at all.
I know exactly what you mean, I'm the same way with other books - Twilight being the Big Example!

Lisa Vegan Shannon, Book 2 does feel completely different. Told from a different point of view by a different character in a different format and, given that it takes place in NYC, much darker. I liked the first book slightly better, but you very well might like the second book better. I hope so, for your sake.

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