The Compulsive Reader: Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Now, if you're familiar with this blog, you'll know that I'm not the type to ramble on and on about a book. I prefer a succinct and concise review that leaves you intrigued rather than a full run down of a story, but this is one book that cannot be let off so easily. So sorry if you don't like long winded reviews, because I am afraid this is one of them.

How would you react if your every day life suddenly was gone? Instead, the people around you, your neighbors, classmates, friends, and even family, are acting on insane impulses. You’re filled with fear and uncertainty. You try to live your life as normally as possible, but circumstances beyond your control don’t allow you to, until suddenly one day you realize that your life is different, and there’s no sense in trying to pretend, because it’ll never be life as we knew it.

This is the premise of Susan Beth Pfeffer’s stunning, sinister and blunt new novel for teens, Life as We Knew It. Miranda is just sophomore girl, obsessing over a celebrity crush, looking forward to the end of the school year, dodging friend troubles, and writing in her diary to pacify her older brother Matt who’s at college at Ithaca. The story opens with her newly remarried father’s announcement that she’s going to have another sibling, and Miranda writes of her wariness of her new stepmother and her wish that she wasn’t the first of her siblings to find out about his news. The entries fly by, and just when the reader is beginning to think of Life as We Knew It is another chick lit, the moon is mentioned.

Miranda barely notes the news of a meteor that is scheduled to hit the moon. She couldn’t care either way, except for the fact that every one of her teachers has to talk about it and assign homework over it. So she grudgingly agrees to watch the moon that fateful Wednesday night with her mom and younger brother. A warning from her older brother before the event captures the essence of the next hundred or so pages perfectly: people will do stupid things when they are scared, and they will do them in large numbers.

And so that night, the meteor strikes. But it does more than just hit the moon, it strikes with such a force that it pushes the moon towards Earth so it’s 100 times larger than before, and suddenly every crater, mountain, and crevice on the moon is perfectly visible with the naked eye.

Immediately Matt’s prediction comes true: people start screaming, running, and some even pack their cars and flee from their homes. In a state of shock, Miranda’s family goes inside to turn on the news, only to find that there is no CBS, or ABC, or any channel for that matter. Soon there isn’t even electricity. In a state of shock, they manage to find a radio with a station that is still broadcasting, only to learn that the entire Eastern Seaboard is being wiped away by raging tsunamis. Unconfirmed reports, rumors, and actual news are twisted into a gruesome report that seems unreal, and uneasily, they go to bed.

The next morning, they are shocked to find that the moon is still easily visible in broad daylight. Disconcerted, Miranda and her brother go to school. But it’s not long before vicious electrical storms rage just outside, causing widespread hysteria. Miranda’s mother shows up before lunch to pull her out of school. Her only response to Miranda’s questions is to hand her 500 dollars and drive her to the supermarket. There she instructs Miranda and her brother to buy as much canned food and bottled water as they can. Inside the store is pandemonium and they find themselves fighting for food and carrying as much of it as they can.

Miranda is sure her mother has gone insane, and eagerly awaits Matt’s homecoming. But when he finally does arrive, he can only agree with her mother. He immediately gets to work chopping wood for winter, five months away. Miranda is left feeling alone, and tries to combat her foreboding feelings that her mother believes that they are going to die.

As the weeks go by, Miranda’s impatience is palpable. Sure, gas is now 9 dollars a gallon, and you can’t get much food at the supermarket, and many people have fled their small town, but surely life can’t go on like this forever. It won’t be long before the country gets back on its feet and gas prices will be regulated again. Cities can be rebuilt, food will come. It’ll be better soon.

But then it becomes evident that it won’t. The volcanoes start becoming active. Earthquakes strike the New Madrid Fault Line. The atmosphere is thick with ash everywhere. And there continues to be a lack of food. All hopes of a normal life vanish when the first frost strikes in the beginning of August and their town is nearly deserted. Miranda’s family is still living off of what they stockpiled, but thousands of people aren’t so lucky. There’s no fuel for heat. Abandoned houses are being raided, and then torn down for fuel. School starts, but then stops. And Miranda’s mother begins rationing food. For the first time, Miranda realizes that they might not survive unless they are very careful.

As the fall progresses and the winter approaches, suddenly they must deal with death, desertion, loneliness, and starvation. Their whole family lives in one room for warmth. They have nothing to do, and they are weary and hungry. There are no nearby neighbors. That is when the disease hits.

Influenza, deadlier than the strain that rampaged the world in 1918, made even more fatal by the lack of medical care, food, and transportation. Even more people die, and Miranda alone stays healthy. But she soon wishes that she had died when she walks into the pantry one day and realizes that unless they can procure more food, they will die. In exactly 2 weeks.

I couldn’t sleep after I finished this book. Because this story is more than just another sad, terrifying apocalyptic event. It is vivid and real. Numerous sub plots and other day to day problems are peppered between the bigger issues of the changed Earth, giving Life as We Knew It more of a soul. Each problem and challenge is relatable, from first love to loneliness to school problems to self destruction. Through reading this book, I have come to believe that the most terrifying dystopian novels are those that resemble our world the most, and in each page of this book, there is always something that anchors Miranda’s experiences to our reality.

The last entry of Miranda’s diary is probably one of the most heartrending and sorrowful of the whole book. Rather than shy around the issue and euphemizing it, Pfeffer boldly follows through, and the result is a book, and an ending that won’t leave you disappointed, or dry eyed.

I have to confess: I have always loved those end-of-the-world stories, no matter how much they scared me. The idea of something so bizarre, so different happening that it would change life as we knew it has always been semi appealing to me. I loved watching Deep Impact when I was young, and The Day After Tomorrow is one of my favorite movies. But this is one novel that I think has really put things in perspective for me as far as the end of humanity situations go.

But I can’t say as it’s really curbed my fascination for them. Because I’ve already pre-ordered Life as We Knew It’s sequel. The Dead and the Gone.


Nurin said...

Okay...now I really, really want to read this book.

Liv said...

I've been dying to read this book for a while. It sounds so good. Nice review!

Chelsie said...

I absolutely loved this book; it had everything that a good book needs. =D


Anonymous said...

Oooh... this sounds really interesting... !

Anonymous said...


Berta said...

I really loved this disturbing book, too, and like you I'm a fan of apocalyptic fiction. The new book, The Dead and the Gone, isn't really a sequel, though. It's a story of the same time period, but told from a New York teen's point of view, a Puerto Rican boy who's left to care for his two little sisters after the tidal waves kill his parents. When it comes out in June, I'll be the first in line at my bookstore!

Anonymous said...

this book is super super super spectacular it left me befuddled and wondering whats in store for the next one! PS. just ate a live dog

Anonymous said...

i absolutely hated it with all my heart it was the worst book ever (DONT READ)