Thursday, July 31, 2014

Review: "Life As We Knew It" by Susan Beth Pfeffer

When the asteroid collision shifted the moon's orbit, Miranda thought it was no big deal. But the very next day, her mother pulls her out of school to hoard all the food they can carry out of the supermarket. Miranda thinks she is overreacting. Things can't be that bad--can they?

Instead of cute boys and test scores, she begins to worry about what they will do when the fuel runs out, or what has happened to her father, out of touch with satellites down and electrical power unavailable. Day by day, her world becomes emptier, hungrier, and smaller. The world she knew is gone forever.

The end of the world is not a single moment, but a lifetime... one which may be very short after all.

  3.5 out of 5 stars
(grump + breakdown below the cut)

I found Susan Beth Pfeffer's Life As We Knew It to be a thought-provoking and refreshing take on everyone's favorite MacGuffin: The End Of The World! Rather than leaping ahead to the grim-yet-relatively-stable stage of the postapocalyptic, Pfeffer sets her story in the hours, days, and weeks of the apocalypse itself. It's a strangely humble story. She writes about the people who have no power to save the world, to avert the catastrophe. All that is in their power is their own survival (and maybe not even that.)

Miranda's diary entries are a good format for this kind of story. It spares Pfeffer having to detail complex scientific explanations. She is also free to jump ahead in time or summarize gradual changes after they have become evident.

As a narrator, Miranda starts off rather ho-hum. She is indistinguishable from the average YA narrator. Her voice develops with the story, though, as her life changes separate her from the bland and familiar. It takes a realistically long time for it to sink in that her world is ending. The unthinkable has happened, and continues to happen, and to have happened. Miranda reads perfectly like an average teen in this case: primarily focused on how it affects her (in ultimately trivial ways.) She is not terribly admirable, but she is very lifelike, and compelling for that reason.

The three key conflicts of the book are: can we hoard enough food to survive an unknown period of famine; can we stay healthy and warm when our modern conveniences are stripped away; and can we stand together as a family, or will we shatter apart?

Over the past year, I myself have struggled with the availability of food. (In my case it was due to finances, not apocalypses.) Perhaps I read more deeply than the average reader into Miranda's concerns about how quickly their weekly stores dwindle, her weariness of the same inexpensive plentiful staples, her developing tactic of eating a mouthful to stop her stomach from growling just long enough to fall asleep.

By the end of the book, I was satisfied with the changes in Miranda and her world. It's hard to wrap up a book about the end of the world without leaving the reader feeling either depressed or cheated; Pfeffer manages to avoid either, for which she earns my applause.

It is not as well composed, but the companion book--The Dead And The Gone--is worth reading, if only to bring in the perspective of what might happen in more urban areas during the events that Miranda describes from her country isolation. I cannot recommend the third book as any kind of "continuation" of the first two, though, and a browse through Goodreads reviews was enough for me to skip the fourth and last.

Complexity of Writing: 3/5
Quality of Writing: 3/5
Strength of Characterization: 3/5
Logic of Plot Development: 4/5
Evocation of Setting: 4/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 5/5
Resolution of Conflict: 4/5
Emotional Engagement: 4/5
Mental Engagement: 2/5
Bechdel Test: pass
Diverse Cast:  fail
Content Warning: character deaths, starvation

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