Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Review: This World We Live In by Susan Beth Pfeffer

I read this one the same day that the volcano started wreaking havoc with travelers around the world. It was a total coincidence, I swear!

Such is just one of the disasters that has happened in Susan Beth Pfeffer's trilogy that started with Life as We Knew It and continued in The Dead and the Gone (both of which were among my favorite books read in 2008). To re-cap briefly: an asteroid hit the moon, knocking it out of its standard orbit and moving it much closer to Earth. Cue instant environmental chaos: tidal waves wipe out coastal cities (in The Dead and the Gone I learned that my neighborhood in Queens would have most likely been wiped out immediately), earthquakes strike and the darn volcanoes start going off constantly. Millions die instantly, and who knows how many thousands more die as electricity, heat, and food are in short supply. Global warming is no longer an issue - with all of the ash in the atmosphere a new ice age settles across the globe, where in the middle of summer in Pennsylvania they're happy for days of a warm 60 degrees Fahrenheit. The first book is told through Miranda's diary entries in Pennsylvania; the second book covers roughly the same period of time, but follows Alex and his two sisters in New York City. This World We Live In is set a year after the asteroid's impact and we're back following Miranda through her diary entries.

A sense of civilization has returned for Miranda, her mom, and her two brothers. They're still getting canned food from city hall. They're getting electricity for a few hours every day, and spring is on the way, which will hopefully mean warmer days. But the quartet expands rapidly, first as her oldest brother brings a girl home along with a big haul of fish, and then as Miranda's dad returns, with his wife and new baby, and three friends from a refugee camp: Charlie and Alex and his little sister Julie, two of the stars of The Dead and the Gone.

It's tough going from a family of four to a group of 11 almost over night. Food rations are increasingly scarce and privacy - already rare when it was just Miranda, her mom and her brothers - is a thing of the past. To make it all the more frustrating, Miranda and Alex can't seem to stand each other. He's quiet and stand-offish, intent on taking Julie to a convent despite her wishes to the contrary. He doesn't want to take Miranda's advice on anything - he doesn't seem to want to be around people at all. But in this new world they live in, Alex and Miranda can't afford to be at each other's throats constantly and learn to first like, and then perhaps even love each other, even as the future is as uncertain as ever, and tragedy lurks around every corner.

I've said before that diary-style stories can really throw me off, but for some reason I had absolutely no problem with the diary entries here. I don't know if this is because Pfeffer has some magic tricks up her sleeve, or if I was just so excited to get back into this devastated world she's created. In books like the Carbon Diaries series, the natural disasters build gradually over time, but here the change is immediate and devastating and reading about the short- and long-term survival of Miranda and her family is just gripping.

The last two books were necessarily light on the romance since the main characters interacted with few people outside of their families (no Flowers in the Attic storylines here!), but the romance got turned up to 11 in this one, first with Matt and then Miranda and Alex falling head over heels in love almost immediately upon laying eyes upon someone of the opposite sex. While I found it totally believable (it's the end of the world, of course you're going to go looking for connections where you can find them!), I was kind of waiting for the adults to butt in and try to get the kids to act rationally. For example, Miranda's mother can be extremely short tempered and clearly treats Miranda differently than her brothers post-asteroid (this was touched on more in The Dead and the Gone than Life as We Knew It, but the streets are dangerous places for girls alone, and as we've seen in post-earthquake Haiti, natural disasters make areas doubly unsafe for women and girls) yet she never has a real problem with Miranda melodramatically declaring her love for Alex. I got annoyed with the two of them talking about their deep and spiritual love; I found it hard to believe Miranda's practical and short-tempered mother having much of a stomach for it, either.

But really? That's my only critique. Even when she's being whiny or melodramatic, I love reading about Miranda and I'm sad this is the conclusion of the trilogy. Pfeffer has created an intensely compelling world, and even if the Earth didn't seem to be in the middle of heightened seismic activity, I would still love reading this. I think this is another early add to my best of 2010 list.


Tia said...

I really wasn't crazy about Life As We Knew It, but I think I might enjoy the increased number of characters in This World. The introduction of a romance might also make it a bit different. Perhaps I'll give it a go.

Angela Craft said...

If it was romance or a variety of characters you missed in Life as We Knew It, then this could definitely be different enough for you. Miranda still has her moments of whining and arguing and general teenager-ness that I know a lot of people found off-putting earlier, so if it was her or her voice you had a problem with, she hasn't grown up *that* much since the last book.

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