February 25, 2010
Life As We Knew It series by Susan Beth Pfeffer
I have mentioned before that I really love dystopian books (ones like The Hunger Games or Uglies or The Giver where something has completely changed the face of the world (war, disease, etc) and an alternate kind of society has sprung up). This series would fall into that category, but it's different because, unlike the three books I just mentioned, you see the recognizable world fall apart, rather than just the aftermath and rebuilt society.
The very short synopsis is that the moon is hit by a very large asteroid and is knocked closer to the earth. Enough closer that the tides are thrown completely off, the seasons change dramatically, and earthquakes, hurricanes, tidal waves, and volcanoes ravage many parts of the world. It's all very cheerful as you can imagine.
The first book, Life As We Knew It, is written in diary form by teen-aged Miranda. Her family lives in a small town in rural Pennsylvania. They do okay even as food run short because of her mom's quick thinking early on when they purchase hundreds of dollars worth of non-persishable foods. The heat and electricity shuts off pretty quickly, coming on every few weeks for a few minutes or maybe, if they're lucky, for a few hours. School comes to a screeching halt, and Miranda's life, once full of friends and school and sports is now mostly doing laundry by hand, spending the days in one room of her house with her mother and sibilings trying to keep warm, and wondering if she'll ever go to college, have a real boyfriend, get a job, etc.
The second book, The Dead and the Gone, is actually the one I read first, about a year ago, and covers the same time period but this time from Alex's point of view, a teenager living in New York City. His dad is out of the country when the moon is hit and his mom is at work; months go by and they never hear from either of them, so Alex must assume they are dead and take over the care of his two younger sisters as their world falls apart. Things in the city are exceedingly bleak, as disease spreads rapidly in the highly-populated areas, there aren't as many natural resources, and bodies pile up in the streets. In all honesty, having read this one first, Life As We Knew It seemed downright cheery in comparison.
The third book (and I believe the last of the series) comes out at the beginning of April and is titled This World We Live In. In it, Alex (spoiler! He doesn't die in the second book!) ends up in Pennsylvania staying with Miranda's family (mega-spoiler! she doesn't die in the first book (as if the diary format didn't tip you off to that)) and, of course, there is some romance that goes on there. And, wow, after the total tragedy-fest of the first two, I felt like I deserved some romance. But some good kissing doesn't change the fact that food is still unbelievably scarce, that it could run out at any moment, that your family still needs to be taken care of, and that there is no certainty about what the future might hold or if there will even be a future for anyone, even those who have managed to survive for over a year since the moon was struck.
I think what makes this book so scary is that the problem is irreversible. In The Giver, Jonas can hope that there are other communities out there that don't function like his. Katniss, in The Hunger Games, can attempt to take down the Capitol. There's not really a good way to set the moon back in its original orbit. The only option is to deal with the changed world. And it's a permanent change. Freaky.
I love the author, though, for not going for the shock factor. Terrible things happen, yes, in all three of the books, but I never felt like she was going trying to milk it - the characters dealt with things in ways that I felt were very realistic. Sometimes, even when the world is falling apart, Miranda can't help but get into a yelling match with her mom. Sometimes Alex, despite his fierce protectiveness of his little sisters, is so angry at the world for ripping away his dreams of future success and achievement, that he takes it out on them.
This is the kind of book that might have you buying up every can of beans at your grocery store after you finish, and, well, yes, they are kind of depressing. The idea of the world practically ending, while you watch your neighbors die of exposure, disease, and starvation and wonder if you are not far behind is not exactly a Lifetime Movie special, but it's also strangely uplifting too. It's amazing how resilient people can be, how much they can pull together when things get bad, and how grateful you can be for a can of pineapple when you thought you were going to starve to death.
P.S. I listened to the first two and while I heard some complaints from others about the narration of Miranda's book, it didn't bother me at all. In fact, I found myself looking for excuses to listen to it (the laundry has never been so well-managed in my house). The Dead and the Gone, however, I really disliked, and it was only the trainwreck nature of the story itself that kept me from giving up quickly. Frankly, at least for that one, I'd stick with a print version.
Life As We Knew It and The Dead and the Gone both borrowed from my local library. This World We Live In read as an advance copy from ALA Midwinter conference.