REVIEW: This World We Live In by Susan Beth Pfeffer
Dear Ms. Pfeffer,
I’ve made no secret of the fact that I love post-apocalyptic novels. While I do think it’s more suited to certain genres than others (I’m afraid I’ve yet to really fall in love with a post-apocalyptic romance), post-apocalyptic young adult fiction is one subgenre I have yet to get tired of. I was first introduced to your work when someone gave me Life As We Knew It as a Christmas present. I fell in love with that book and sang its praises to anyone who’d listen. And believe me, I was completely ecstastic when many award-giving people agreed with me.
You later wrote a companion book to LAWKI, the dead & the gone. My feelings were very mixed about that book and while I thought it was a good read, I wasn’t convinced it lived up to the promise of LAWKI. But then again, what could? That’s a real dilemma authors face and I do sympathize but as a reader, I often just want a book as awesome as the first.
Which brings us to This World We Live In (hereafter abbreviated as TWWLI because I am lazy). As previous novels chronicled, a meteor hit the moon and knocked it into an orbit closer to earth. As a result, the moon’s gravitational pull upon the earth was made that much stronger. This resulted in many environmental changes and catastrophes: tsunamis that destroyed pretty much all of New York City, volcano eruptions that left a permanent thin layer of ash which blocked out the sun, earthquakes, and the like. When TWWLI opens, it’s been a year since that fateful event when life on earth was irrevocably changed.
In TWWLI, we also return to the life of Miranda Evans, the protagonist of the first book, LAWKI. When the novel opens, Miranda has been having terrible nightmares. She wonders what happened to her father, her stepmother, and their unborn child to whom she was meant to be godmother. For the past year, she’s lived in a house with her mother and two brothers. They’ve survived on the weekly rations handed out by town officials. It’s not really a life but it is survival and sometimes that’s all you can ask for. But maybe Miranda has a bit of intuition in her because one day, her father shows up on their doorstep with his wife, their newborn baby (a boy, not the girl Miranda had been hoping for), a man named Charlie whom they’d befriended, and two teenagers they picked up along the way — Alex and Julie.
Readers of the previous two novels will probably recognize those last two as characters from the dead & the gone. I have mixed feelings about this. When they first turned up, I was skeptical. I tend to find stories in which characters from previous books show up and meet a little contrived at the best of times and more than a little twee during others. But I’ll also be honest and say when I was the age of these books’ target audience, I ate that sort of stuff up with a spoon so that’s just a personal preference of the me in the present day.
By the end of the book, I was very glad you had made this choice. I love the interactions between Miranda and Alex. They offer a dynamic that wasn’t present in either of the previous novels so that was fresh.
“You don’t have to believe in the church,” he said. “Or even in God. Believe that people can change things.”
“No,” I said. “I don’t know that anymore.” My mind flashed back to the dead man with his dog lying beside him. “We’re all helpless,” I said. “There’s nothing we can do. There’s nothing left to trust in.”
“Trust in tomrrow,” Alex said. “Every day of your life, there’s been a tomorrow. I promise you, there’ll be a tomorrow.”
“Do you trust in tomorrow?” I asked.
“I have to,” he said. “For Julie’s sake.”
“But you don’t trust in us,” I said. “To look after Julie.”
He answered with silence.
“You don’t trust in anything, either,” I said. “Not really. Your God, your church, your tomorrow. You don’t even trust Carlos. You’re just doing what he tells you because it’s easier.”
“That’s not true,” Alex said. “You don’t understand.”
“I do understand,” I said. “But I don’t care. I’m not a dream girl. I’m a real human being with real feelings. How can I trust tomorrow? Tomorrow terrifies me. I wake up every morning scared and I go to bed every night scared, and all those tomorrows I’ve lived through are exactly the same. Hunger and fear and loneliness. Exactly the same as you, as everybody. Only you’re worse, because when we ask you to share our hunger and our fear and our loneliness, you turn your back on us. I may be lonely and scared and hungry, but I haven’t given up on loving people yet. You have. Or maybe you never loved anyone. Maybe all your life was dreams.”
It helps that these two have very different outlooks on life, by virtue of their backgrounds and upbringing.
While there’s never been a question about your ability to capture how bleak and grim this world is, I liked you portrayed how such a setting makes what would ordinarily be insane events seem normal. I’m specifically thinking of what Matt and Jon went to the coast to fish and a week later, they return with Syl who Matt has declared to be his wife. The circumstances surrounding how this came to pass are what show how society has deterioriated: Syl had been traveling with a man who beat her and when the brothers discovered this, they put a stop to it and took Syl away from the man.
In LAWKI, one of Miranda’s best friends opted for a life similar to Syl’s — she chose to leave town with a man who promised safety in exchange for her body. In some ways, I think Syl brings that narrative thread full circle: what happens to a girl who’d chosen that life and how it forever changes her. Not once does she ever really speak of love when it comes to Matt despite his making constant proclamations of his undying love for Syl. (Me? I think Matt just needed to get laid.) But it’s obvious she does appreciate the life she’s found with Matt and his family.
I definitely like the return to Miranda’s POV. I know LAWKI was heavily criticized for Miranda’s self-centered narrative but hey, she’s a teenager whose life is changed when the world ends. Miranda’s self-centeredness was very grounding and kept the fantastic familiar. So that said, if readers didn’t like that self-centered aspect of Miranda’s narrative, they’re not going to like it now in TWWLI. Nor will readers who dislike the epistolary format.
My only complaint is that I think the ending pushed very hard against my suspension of disbelief, which already had been nudged by Alex and Julie showing up on Miranda’s doorstep. I don’t want to spoil what happens but while I see it as being necessary to encourage the Evans family and company to do what needs to be done, it also struck me as suddenly dramatic, overly so, in a book that had been quiet for the most part as it chronicled how people survive, how they keep hope alive when every day does something to beat it down, and how to keep faith when all signs tell you to stop.
All that said, I found this book enjoyable to read and more in line with the experience I found with LAWKI. I think many readers of post-apocalyptic YA will feel the same. B+
This book can be purchased at Amazon. No ebook format.