Life as We Knew It
The Last Survivors
By Susan Beth Pfeffer
I woke up last week remembering a book I’d enjoyed when I was in middle school. Half asleep and still in pajamas, I looked it up after spending a while remembering the title. Then I realized that book had actually been part of a series! Being who I am, I ordered the series with glee and devoured the book I remembered in a single day.
Now, I’ve always been one for disaster movies: 2012, The Day After Tomorrow, and Poseidon were a few of my favorites. It didn’t occur to me until I was waiting for my newest box set to arrive that I’d obviously like books in the same vein—and clearly had.
I wasn’t disappointed. However, if you’re looking for an action-packed YA novel with heart-stopping scenes, this is not the book for you. Life as We Knew It is a drama. It focuses heavily on the day-to-day emotional impacts of the theoretical (and sometimes outright fantastical) events that occur in the beginning chapters. You’ll have adventure; just not the action-based kind. If I had to compare it to an adult novel, I’d choose Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
Your narrator is a 16-year-old girl. Don’t expect logical or concise decisions to be made at all times. Expect high emotional responses, grieving for a life-that-was or could have been, rebelliousness, selfishness, and a craving for instant gratification. Even if you aren’t a teenager anymore and have learned to regulate these traits and emotions in yourself, you can empathize.
Life as We Knew It tells its story at a slant. Life for the characters doesn’t drastically change following the events with the moon. Life erodes among bursts of activity—kind of like a twitch after death. You get to experience the collapse of society at a distance! The setting is somewhere in northeastern Pennsylvania in the United States: a small town in the middle-of-nowhere. At first, things are okay enough. Kids still go to school and adults still go to work. Then there’s the obligatory panic buying when news of the disasters trickle in. Electrical failures, strange weather, and lists of the dead.
Do keep in mind that Life as We Knew It is still young adult fiction. It is meant for twelve and thirteen-year-olds at the very least. You won’t find all the gruesome detail concerning bodies within these pages. You won’t find cannibalism or kidnapping. Yes, some of the book is still unsettling—I certainly remember being unsettled when I first read it as a kid—but, ultimately, you get a happy ending. More or less. You get to keep hope.
I did want to touch on one more aspect: religion in Life as We Knew It. I’ll preface this section with the fact that I, myself, am not religious. Spiritual, sure. But organized religion is not for me. With that in mind, I think Pfeffer’s choice to only show the radicalized religious odd. Most of the beliefs found in Life as We Knew It come from a single source: a peer, and friend, of the narrator. This friend is not unkind or particularly judging, but she has clearly been manipulated into believing a fair few unhealthy and dangerous ideas at an impressionable point in her life. You can read for yourself what happens to her, but the real kicker is the single scene where the narrator meets the pastor of this group of people. He is shown to be unkind, aloof, and self-righteous—not that you like him before meeting him for a moment anyway. And this is all fine. My issue comes in with this being the only religious group the book touches on. I’d have liked to see a bit more balance. However, it does provide some darker realities to reflect on. In short, I didn’t hate it, but I think it could have been handled as part of the narrative a bit better.
Since I did buy the series, I do plan to finish the whole thing before moving on to other books. So next time shall be Pfeffer’s companion book to this one, The Dead and the Gone.