Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Life As We Knew It, by Susan Beth Pfeffer

One-line summary: OMG! Like, the world is totally ending and it like, totally sucks!

Houghton Mifflin, 2006, 347 pages

Miranda's disbelief turns to fear in a split second when an asteroid knocks the moon closer to the earth. How should her family prepare for the future when worldwide tsunamis wipe out the coasts, earthquakes rock the continents, and volcanic ash blocks out the sun? As summer turns to Arctic winter, Miranda, her two brothers, and their mother retreat to the unexpected safe haven of their sunroom, where they subsist on stockpiled food and limited water in the warmth of a wood-burning stove. In her journal, Miranda records the events of each desperate day, while she and her family struggle to hold on to their most priceless resource—hope.

There aren't many things that will induce me to read a YA novel nowadays. But I have a particular fondness for end-of-the-world stories, and Life As We Knew It (and its sequels) have gotten a fair amount of buzz, so I went ahead and plowed through it in short order, as it's a pretty light read.

The plot, basically, is this: an asteroid hits the moon. The impact is great enough to shift the moon's orbit closer to Earth. The immediate effect is massive tsunamis that wipe out coastal cities around the world, followed by severe earthquakes, followed by volcanism as a large number of dormant volcanoes erupt, with the Moon's increased gravity pulling more magma towards the surface. The volcanic eruptions result in a world blanketed by ash, resulting in poor air quality, loss of sunlight, more climactic changes, etc.

The science is pretty dodgy (the author admits here that she pretty much just handwaved it -- "All the science in LAWKI/d&g is consequence based"), but I've learned not to expect much from modern YA science fiction, and this book is solidly aimed at Middle Americans who might not even believe in evolution, so who cares about that sciencey stuff? It's for tweens who want to experience a little frisson of dread at the thought of the world coming to an end and how that might be kind of cool because no more stupid kid brothers or Mom and Dad telling them to do homework, except they wouldn't really want that, so Pfeffer makes sure to reassure them that yes, Mom is still going to make you do homework even when the sky is falling. Life As We Knew It is an earnestly but unthreateningly liberal end-of-the-world as might be depicted in an ABC Afterschool Special.

Armageddon-Lite: Keep those bodies off-screen

Seriously, one of the complaints in negative reviews is that the main character's mother is obviously a liberal and keeps bashing the President -- who is not named in the book, nor is his party, but it's obviously George Bush -- and that the Christians in the book are basically batshit. Not the dangerous, burn-you-at-stake kind of batshit like Stephen King would write, but the starving-to-death-is-all-part-of-God's-mysterious-plan kind of batshit. I would not be at all surprised if this does reflect the author's views, but as authorial axe-grinding goes, it's pretty mild. And considering that Mom is basically the embodiment of the PC-liberal-who's-completely-useless-when-the-shit-hits-the-fan stereotype -- see Too Stupid To Live, below -- I could almost as easily believe that Pfeffer is a very sly conservative.

Life As We Knew It is written in epistolary format: Miranda, the sixteen-year-old protagonist who lives in a small town in Pennsylvania, records what happens in her journal. The first chapter is just ordinary teenage girl stuff about grades and boys and her family (parents are amicably divorced; Dad married a younger model who's now pregnant; Miranda and her younger brother live with Mom; an older brother is off at college). Then the asteroid hits the moon. Everyone comes out to watch the big event, but apparently no one ever considered that the impact might produce something other than a spectacular light show. (This is explained later as the asteroid being "denser than scientists expected.")

In the first few days, the death toll is in the millions, but it's all on the coasts, and thus off-page. This persists throughout the book: it is hinted just how bad things might be elsewhere, but as populations die, civilization collapses, and the world plunges into climactic catastrophe, Miranda barely notices more than that food and gas and heating oil is increasingly scarce and the mail is slow and neighbors have stopped talking to each other. She constantly whines about how she can't wait until things go back to normal. (Because the Moon is just going to move back where it belongs on its own, right?) Miranda is a self-absorbed teenager whose blithe refusal to believe that these aren't just temporary hardships, that life is never going to go back to "normal," would be less forgivable except that she seems to be joined in her studious avoidance of reality by her mother, and indeed her entire town.

Too Stupid To Live

The day of the impact, Miranda's mother has the foresight to hit up local supermarkets and grab all the boxed and canned food and candles they can find. Thus, they have enough food to last them for a while. This is about the last time Miranda's mother has any foresight; even after it becomes clear that the government isn't going to be bringing relief supplies, the supermarkets aren't going to reopen, and thanks to volcanic ash, they can't even grow anything in their vegetable garden, nobody ever plans anything long-term. One thing, notably, that Miranda's mother did not stock up on -- it's never even mentioned -- is guns. The idea of self-defense, or hunting for food, never occurs to anyone. (No hunters in rural Pennsylvania? Seriously?) Here is Miranda's mother giving a heartwarming keep-hope-alive speech once it's clear they don't even have enough food to last the winter:

"But as long as we don't know what the future is going to bring us, we owe it to ourselves to keep living. Things could get better. Somewhere people are working on solutions to all this. They have to be. It's what people do. And our solution is to stay alive one day at a time. Everyone dies in increments, Miranda. Every day we're one day closer to death. But there's no reason to rush into it. I intend to stay alive as long as I possibly can and I expect the same from you. The only sensible thing to do is for all of us to stay in the sunroom."

This is after the water finally stopped working because the well went dry (conveniently, Miranda's house just happens to have both a wood-burning stove and a well), which is something they also anticipated happening but didn't actually plan for other than stocking up on bottled water. So now Mom's survival plan is for everyone to move into the sunroom where the wood-burning stove is, and live off of bottled water and cans of tuna fish until either they run out and die, or "people somewhere" figure out "solutions to all this."

It's this complete absence of people actually going into any kind of "survival mode" where the book breaks down worse than its science failures. Miranda's town is relatively sheltered (the mass rioting and starvation that would be going on in big cities is hardly even mentioned), but the only hope any of them would have is if the entire community starts pooling resources and working on becoming self-sufficient. In a real situation like this, you'd have to go back to isolated medievalism pretty quickly, scavenging whatever technology can be maintained, but your first priorities are going to be food and shelter. There is no sign that anyone in the town tries to organize anything. The hospital continues operating for a while, there's a half-hearted effort to keep the schools open, but people pretty much hoard what food they can get, and then stay indoors and starve to death one by one. It was like reading Nothing to Envy, except these people don't have the excuse of a brutal police state for their hopeless resignation.

An Abstinence-Only Apocalypse

Nor, of course, does the author go the other way and show violence and social collapse with undo realism. Miranda, biking through town, comes across a gang of older boys from her high school prying plywood off of store windows to use as firewood. She runs to the police station, and is shocked -- shocked! -- that the police station has long since been boarded up as well. Then she hears stories about girls being "snatched off the street" and it occurs to her that maybe wandering around alone isn't safe. (Don't worry -- the girl who was supposedly snatched turns out to be fine. Pfeffer never has the nerve to follow through on any of the horrific outcomes she hints at.)

And that's pretty much as far as the book goes in the way of hinting at how bad things might get after an apocalypse. Again, because it's a YA novel, I wasn't expecting to see barbecued babies or roving rape-gangs, but this is a Miranda-centered story and just as Miranda's thoughts and fears are never more than vague and ill-formed, neither are the actual threats.

Instead, the tension in the book stems largely from Miranda going through utterly prosaic teenage angst for which tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and winters without food or power serve only to magnify her distress. Most conflict is with her mother: Mom's pissed off because Miranda stole a bag of chocolate chips from the pantry; Mom flips out because Miranda went somewhere without telling her; Mom doesn't understand Miranda's desire to see her boyfriend; Mom loves Miranda's brother more than she loves Miranda; Miranda screams "I hate you!" at her mother and wishes she had never been born. Their neighbors are starving to death, half the world is freezing, and Arizona is now coastal territory, but Miranda's problems can all be solved by a tearful apology and conciliatory hugs from her mother.

The PSA tone is neatly preserved in Miranda's encounters with her sort-of boyfriend, whom she meets alone in the woods, but even though they are angsty, hormonal teenagers with the world falling apart around them, do they have sex? Of course not, don't be silly, this is a YA novel written by a 56-year-old woman. All they do is kiss, and then in her journal afterwords, Miranda writes:

I'm not Sammi. I'm not an idiot. Sure, I'd love to make love with Dan. I'd love to make love with someone before this whole stupid world ends. But even though I told Mom that Dan and I love each other, I know we don't. Not the kind of love that I want to feel for the first man I make love with.

Yes, this is meant to be the authentic voice of a sixteen-year-old girl writing about sex in her private journal. "Make love"? Seriously? This doesn't sound like an actual teenager, it sounds like Susan Pfeffer giving her daughter the "You should wait until you meet the man who you know is the Right One because you want your First Time to be Very, Very Special..." talk.

Sammi, btw, is Miranda's sluttysexually active friend who runs away with a forty-year-old man after food gets scarce. Yes, she's the one character in the book who has sex, so Pfeffer makes her a boy-crazy bimbo who ends up trading her body for survival. And given the circumstances, Sammi was arguably making a rational if unpleasant choice, but it's presented as "Sammi is a slut anyway so of course she'd take that route."

If I sound like I hated this book, I actually didn't. I found it lightweight and forgettable, but it was entertaining for a couple of hours, and it does move along, not bogged down by anything that would make you think too hard, worry, or bite your nails. Yes, I was tempted to throw it against the wall by the ending -- Miranda's family has done fuck-all to improve their survival chances for the past year and by rights they shouldn't make it, but let's just say Pfeffer is more interested in tugging at your heartstrings than tearing your heart out. But I think it's a fine (if unchallenging) book for young readers, and it's about as entertaining as an Afterschool Special.

But of course, Life As We Knew It turns out to be the first in a trilogy. Apparently book two introduces a new character, Alex Morales, and his own survival story, and book three brings Miranda and Alex together. Groan. I can't blame Pfeffer for following the formula that keeps you getting published, but I doubt very much I'll read them.

Verdict: I probably would have liked this book a lot when I was twelve or thirteen. It's a page-turner with believable (if rather dim) characters and an emotional storyline that was more gripping than it had a right to be. It completely falls down on its face as science fiction, though, and as post-apocalyptic fiction goes, it's watered-down to the point that it practically has "Mom-approved" stamped all over it. I read it because I read lots of YA post-apocalyptic stories when I was a kid (John Christopher was one of my favorites) and wanted to see how the new stuff compares. Alas, it doesn't.
Tags: books, books that fail, reviews, science fiction, young adult

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