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REVIEW: This World We Live In by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Dear Ms. Pfeffer,

The World We Live In by Susan Beth PfeifferI’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+

My regards,

This book can be purchased at Amazon. No ebook format.

Jia is an avid reader who loves fantasy and young adult novels. She's also currently dipping her toes in the new adult genre but remains unconvinced by the prevalent need for traumatic pasts. Her favorite authors are Michelle West and Jacqueline Carey. YA authors whose works she's enjoyed include Holly Black, Laini Taylor, Ally Carter, and Megan Miranda. Jia's on a neverending quest for novels with diverse casts and multicultural settings. Feel free to email her with recommendations at [email protected]!


  1. Janine
    Mar 31, 2010 @ 15:24:15

    After your review of The Dead and Gone, I bought two copies of Life As We Knew It — one for myself and one for my sister. I’m ashamed to say I haven’t cracked my own copy open yet but my sister read hers and loved it, and she’s a very picky reader!

  2. Courtney Milan
    Mar 31, 2010 @ 21:22:39

    After your review of Life as We Knew It, I rushed out and bought it, and it completely and utterly enveloped me. It was like post-apocalyptic Little House on the Prairie–all kinds of cracky goodness.

    And now I can’t wait to read this!

  3. nutmeag
    Mar 31, 2010 @ 21:42:04

    Wow, I’d forgotten about this series. I read (actually listened to at work, haha) the first book when it came out, but forgot to look out for subsequent books. Glad the 3rd one turned out well.

    As for the coincidence of focal characters meeting, it helps to remember that the author is going to focus on characters that will eventually meet. It gives those different views about the same events that make the story interesting.

    I do understand what you mean, though. I always feel it’s contrived too, until I remind myself of what I just said. ;-) I’ll have to search for these books next time I have time to read . . .

  4. Maruma
    Mar 31, 2010 @ 21:53:48

    I <i<LOVED “Life as We Knew It”, although I had a harder time getting into “The Dead and Gone” oddly because they were so different from Miranda and her family? It was hard for me to get attached to Alex I dunno, but this book makes me want to pick it up again and give it another shot.

  5. Jia
    Apr 01, 2010 @ 11:18:19

    @nutmeag: There was a big gap between the dead & the gone and this book, so it’s easy to understand how it could have fallen off people’s radar.

    @Maruma: If the dead & the gone is too much of a slog, you can probably skip it and read this one with little problem.

  6. Janine
    Jul 31, 2010 @ 12:48:14

    Jia, I wanted to let you know that I finally read Life as We Knew It and really enjoyed it. I don’t know if I loved it to the same degree that you did, because some things were head-scratching for me. I felt the members of Miranda’s family could have done more to ensure their survival.


    Why didn’t they scavenge dead strangers’ houses or houses that had been abandoned for food and supplies as others were doing? Why didn’t they at least think about eating pet food when Miranda and her mom were on the verge of starvation?

    Was it because the author wanted the characters to remain sympathetic? I don’t know if that makes sense to me because when survival is at stake, I’d rather take something from a dead person who can’t use it than let my loved ones die.

    I also didn’t understand why almost everyone isolated to the degree they did. In emergencies I think it makes more sense to band together, to pool resources and skills.

    Miranda’s initial immaturity did annoy me a bit (at first she seemed more like a fourteen year old than a sixteen year old), but she seemed to grow out of it by the end of the book.

    Having said all this, I did find the book difficult to put down and certain parts of it made me very emotional. I’m very glad I read it and would give it a high B+.

    I really want to read The Dead and the Gone and The World We Live In now.

  7. Jia
    Jul 31, 2010 @ 14:55:34

    @Janine: It’s been a while since I read Live as We Knew It but they did scavenge from the old lady that died who’d been their neighbor. But really, I think the answer to your question lies in Miranda’s immaturity. Remember, you’re an adult thinking these things. An immature 16-year-old who’s in denial about what’s happening and is resentful about the family situation? Probably not going to think about it. Miranda wants to ice skate. There’s a part of her that’s still probably believes they can somehow, by some miracle, go back to the way things were before. That’s my take on it anyway.

    As for Miranda’s mom, maybe she could have thought about it but then again, perhaps not. We can never know for sure though because the narrative is told through Miranda and all first-person narrators are, to a certain extent, unreliable.

  8. Janine
    Jul 31, 2010 @ 15:23:52

    @Jia: That’s a good point about narrator unreliability. I didn’t expect Miranda herself to think of scavenging from other dead people (besides the neighbor/friend) or abandoned houses, but I would have expected her older brother Matt to think of it and make her and her brother help him in doing it. Matt seemed very practical and survival-oriented. And so was her dad — he could have suggested the idea too. The mother was also focused on survival but maybe to a lesser degree, or in a different way?

    It seems like something that someone should have thought of, especially as the food supplies were dwindling. I think the human drive to survive is so powerful; hunger and thirst overwhelm almost any need when they get bad enough. It feels to me like a copout on the part of the author not to go there, or at least have them eat some of the cat food before resigning themselves to death.

    I think if the genre had been something other than young adult, with the same premise, the book might have gotten more gritty. I was also surprised that the gang never tried to steal from them, but maybe their isolation away from town helped with that.

    Another thing that surprised me was that there wasn’t more bartering with other people — trading firewood for food for example, or food for labor, or what have you. And it seemed like people used money for a while after I would have thought other commodities would have become more valuable than cash.

    Also, if I had been Miranda’s mom, I would have considered inviting Peter, the doctor boyfriend, to move in with me and my kids. A doctor is really handy to have around. It would have given Peter something to live for after the death of his daughters, too.

    Plus I thought it was somewhat unrealistic that before the volcanoes blew and the sky became full of ash, Miranda’s mom didn’t make Miranda spend all day gardening or insulating the house. Miranda did do some weeding, but when you’re preparing for that kind of survival struggle, there’s so much to be done. As nice as it was to read about Miranda swimming and skating for fun, I think that was a luxury the family really couldn’t afford.

    But maybe the book would have been too grim had the story gone in some of these directions. It was pretty dark as it was, especially considering its intended audience. I wonder if the author sacrificed some believability in order to make the story more palatable.

  9. Jia
    Jul 31, 2010 @ 16:54:40

    @Janine: I do think a part of it is that we’re really playing the part of the audience, the reader, looking in. These things that are obvious — more growing, more preparation, more whatever — wouldn’t necessarily occur to other people. Yes, it’s a disaster book but to the people a disaster happens to, it seems like the end of the world but you don’t necessarily think or believe it’s the end of the world. Humans are very strange creatures.

    As for the other bit, I don’t like speculating on authorial intent because I’m not the author and I’ll never know but having read the other two books and bits of her blog while the writing of those two books? I don’t think it was ever anything that deliberate, really. I think LAWKI was kind of a fluke. It’s d&g and TWWLI that were more deliberate in their construction and I think it showed in those books because many things were far more contrived (IMO, anyway).

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