July 06, 2010

Apocolypse Now (Review: Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer)

Life As We New It
Susan Beth Pfeffer

It's almost the end of Miranda's sophomore year in high school, and her journal reflects the busy life of a typical teenager: conversations with friends, fights with mom, and fervent hopes for a driver's license. When Miranda first begins hearing the reports of a meteor on a collision course with the moon, it hardly seems worth a mention in her diary. But after the meteor hits, pushing the moon off its axis and causing worldwide earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes, all the things Miranda used to take for granted begin to disappear. Food and gas shortages, along with extreme weather changes, come to her small Pennsylvania town; and Miranda's voice is by turns petulant, angry, and finally resigned, as her family is forced to make tough choices while they consider their increasingly limited options. Yet even as suspicious neighbors stockpile food in anticipation of a looming winter without heat or electricity, Miranda knows that that her future is still hers to decide even if life as she knew it is over.
(blurb courtesy of Goodreads)

I've not read much post-apocalyptic fiction and what little I have has been firmly in the adult market. From World War Z (Max Brooks) to Cormac McCarthy's masterpiece, The Road, the world post-apocalypse is mainly seen through adult eyes and with adult sensibilities. When I came across Life As We Knew It, I was instantly interested to see how this genre would work with a young protagonist and found myself surprised that I enjoyed it just as much (if you can really enjoy a story where things generally go from bad to worse, to worse than worse).

Life As We Knew It is told through the diary entries of Miranda, a 16 year old who, when we first meet her, is living a very average teen life. All in all, I could imagine meeting her in any high school classroom. She is as mature as you would expect her to be at this stage in her life, sometimes coming across as thoughtless and self-centred in her actions. Luckily, she is just at the stage where she is able to self-reflect and admit when her actions have been wrong (if only to herself) and this saves her from becoming unlikeable. Although only a brief section of the book is pre-apocalypse (apocalypse in this story meaning the moon being knocked closer to the earth and basically screwing up tides/volcanoes and all manner of other stuff royally) but during that section we find out that Miranda has lost a friend due to illness and has managed through her grief with calmness and maturity. While lightly-sketched, this was a clever way of illustrating Miranda's core character.  It subtly lets us know that she is a survivor at heart and a pretty level-headed one at that - even if she does really have to have her back to the wall for these characteristics to appear.

As luck would have it, we soon find Miranda with her back to said wall. After the moon does its thing, Miranda, her mother and her two brothers find themselves stockpiling food and firewood much to Miranda's frustration and oft-vocalised incredulity. Meanwhile, tsunamis and volcanos destroy the rest of the world. It quickly becomes clear that her mum's panic buying and her brother's relentless chopping down of trees was all to the good, however, as winter sets in in August and they find themselves without heat, electricity and latterly water. The family dynamics are fascinating and really keep the story afloat. The longer they are stuck in the house together and the harder things get, the more evolved their relationships to one another become. From Miranda's mother's initial attempts to hide the worst from Miranda and her younger brother to her outbursts of truth when Miranda repeatedly questions her judgments on food rationing, the mother-child relationship is particularly interesting. As time goes on, the role of mother and child becomes interchangeable and we see older brother Matt acting as a parent figure to Miranda while she does the same to younger brother Jonny. Interestingly, it slowly becomes apparent that they all play a mothering role towards their actual mother, particularly when she becomes incapacitated. Matt is particularly well-realised, clearly feeling the pressure of being the oldest male in the household (their father only features during a brief visit with his new wife, although the scene in which he leaves is one of the most moving). A brief scene during which Matt finds Miranda in his room illustrates his panic and fear when he loses his temper with her disproportionately, shouting that he “could kill dad for not staying here to take care of us” - it beautifully illustrates the weight on his still only 18-year-old shoulders.
Unusually for a YA novel, there is little romance. Miranda is briefly involved with a boy, Dan, but that storyline fades out pretty quickly – as it should. Who has time for dating during the apocalypse? However, it is a far from redundant plot point as it illustrates that Miranda is not just dealing with the end of the world as she knows it but with the premature end of her own youth and adolescence. At one point she finds herself in a hospital with Dan, surrounded by the dead, dying and those giving up the fight. Dan tells her that before the moon did its thing he had been psyching himself up to ask her to prom. It brings home exactly how much her world has changed and how she is unlikely to ever get to be that carefree, happy teenager again. It's very sad.

Life As We Knew It is not a happy read. I felt pretty depressed throughout the book (as expected – try reading The Road if you ever feel too chirpy...). The ending is as upbeat as it can be (not very) and I have the final two books in this trilogy to read. I am sure that they will be good, if not exactly chipper. Susan Beth Pfeffer has written with such skill (her style is simplistic yet also finely nuanced) that despite the fact that her small cast of characters spend the majority of the book in one location, doing the same things over and over again (and not many of those things are fun) I was completely gripped from start to finish. This is a welcome addition to the world of post-apocalpysia – give it a go.

And yes, I am aware that apocalpysia is not a word. But it totally should be, dontcha think??


Nomes (inkcrush) said...

nice review. i really liked this one - but you're right, it is a little depressing 0 but ultimately maDE ME FEEL GRATEFUL of life and all that I have, if you know what I mean?


thebookfairyhaven said...

Once again an awesome review. I must admit to not being a huge fan of post-apocalyptic fiction (YA or not), mainly because I do find them very depressing. Yet, the book cover and the way the story progresses (from what your review describes), it actually makes me want to give it a try. I probably wouldn't buy it, but if I had to see it in a library, I'd pick it up.

Stephanie said...

I am looking forward to this book even more after reading your review. And "apocolypsia" should totally be a word!

Becky said...

This book made me want to stock-pile food and water. I still want an antique oil lamp for my birthday just in case. I love the analysis in this review. It is so deep and perception. Just wow actually!

Lauren said...

What I love about this review is that you've made me realise things about this book I didn't realise when I read it, if that makes sense. There's actually quite of lot of similarity between this and Anne Frank's diary, in a way - even though this is quite obviously fiction.

I can't say that the next book is any more cheery, but it is a brilliant read. I really should get to the third one at some point.

Splendibird said...

Thanks everyone! I've actually read the next two books now. I may review the second one, which worked really well as a companion novel. The last one is good... but didn't work as well for me as the first two for various reasons, although the overall storyline is beautifully continued. Any recommendations of other apocalysia in YA fiction would be gratefully accepted!