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Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer
Last Survivors #1

Harcourt 2008 (2006)
Paperback
337 pages
YA Apocalyptic Fiction

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.

8 comments to Review: Life As We Knew It

  • I’m always a bit put off by YA books that present selfish teens (in this case, an American) as the POV for a book that promises to deliver thematically outside of their (the protagonist) immediate concerns.

    As an American, I’m going to be defensive. Just because some American teens are selfish doesn’t mean they all are. That’s the nature of a stereotype, after all. I think what bothers me the most is that trait constantly being associated with American teenagers.

    In any event, with my little rant having been written off my chest, your review has given me some insight into these books. I, like you, enjoy reading apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction. I read about this trilogy in an article about the growth of YA dystopian novels. I was hesitant then and I think I still am… Honestly, I’m not sure why! The premise is interesting: the moon gets tilted off its axis, but the rest? It seems a bit too like an end of the world movie to me. I should mention: I’m not a fan of those! 😉

    Lovely review, though, thank you!

    [Reply]

  • I completely agree, and it’s the main reason why I get so tired of the same kind of American teen in YA novels. I don’t for a second believe there is only one kind of teen, so why is only one kind of teen being represented all the time? Is it just easier to write it like that or do they believe this is the most “true” kind of teen? It’s disappointing to say the least.

    I’m not a big fan of end-of-the-world either. This one was weird in how … passive it was. But it could just be me, I might be the only person who didn’t care for this one!

    [Reply]

    Erika Reply:

    There are, sadly, a lot of books that feature selfish teen protagonists. It’s one of the biggest problems I had getting into Westerfeld’s Uglies series. Tally Youngblood is so selfish it actually does more harm for her–and those around her–than good!

    I do wonder, though, if it’s one trope that’s being used didactically? I have no idea, really. :\

    [Reply]

  • Eva

    I swear I’m the only blogger who isn’t drawn to post-apocalyptic stories! I do like the theme you put together for an edu class though. 🙂 I’m happy to see a lukewarm review, since I’ve been avoiding this one on principle. lol

    [Reply]

  • It gets more hype than it deserves, I tend to think 😉

    [Reply]

  • I really liked this book, but I hadn’t considered the fact that it lets humankind of the hook at all – that’s an excellent point, and it’s something that really troubles me. Thank you for making me think about it from a new perspective!

    [Reply]

    Shannon Reply:

    It’s interesting, it’s something that really struck me and even had this thing that really worries me, where Miranda’s mum says “someone somewhere is working on fixing this, they’ll solve it and everything will be fine” or something along those lines. It made me cringe, because it’s something we really fall back on – this idea that some scientist or someone will solve all our problems so we won’t have to change the way we do things, the way we live. Kinda ironic really isn’t it, in the context of ths novel and the title? 😉

    [Reply]

  • […] Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer – this YA apocalyptic novel has no dystopian elements to it, but as Bree (All the Books I Can Read) pointed out, it gets put on lists of dystopian novels. And why? Because of this idea that any speculative novel where people are struggling to survive is automatically dystopian. The thing about dystopian worlds is that, often the people aren’t struggling at all. It’s an almost (I hesitate to say this) socialist world, and is often considered a genre that stems from capitalist countries’ fear of socialism. A discussion for another day… […]

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