I’ve been intrigued by the premise of Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer since I first heard of it. It’s another “what if” book, but unlike dystopians and sci-fi, this book is set in current times, with the technology of today. What would happen to our lives if we were suddenly faced with an unexpected global disaster? How would it change our families, our friendships, our communities? These are the questions posed in Life as We Knew It.
Life as We Knew It is written as the diary of 16-year-old Miranda. As it begins, Miranda has the same concerns of most 16-year-old girls: grades, friends, extracurricular activities, finding a date for the prom. There’s an event that her teachers and local news anchors seem excited about: an asteroid is predicted to collide with the moon, and it’s supposed to be visible to the naked eye. But Miranda doesn’t see what all the fuss is about; it’s not like the moon has never been hit by an asteroid before.
But on the night of the anticipated collision, Miranda dutifully joins her family and neighbors outside to watch this once-in-a-lifetime event. And the world’s excitement turns to horror when something completely unexpected happens.
The asteroid was denser than astronomers believed, and instead of the harmless impact they were anticipating, a quarter of the moon is destroyed. The moon is also knocked much closer to the Earth, and suddenly looms huge and menacing in the sky.
Soon, the altered gravitational force of the moon begins to cause relentless and catastrophic natural disasters all over the world: tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanoes. Electricity becomes a luxury, then a memory. Communications with other states and countries fail.
Through it all, Miranda diligently keeps her diary, chronicling her family’s struggle to keep the lifestyle they once had, which turns into their struggle to simply survive.
I was totally captivated by this book. Everything that Miranda’s family went through seemed feasible in our current world, and I found myself wondering how my family would cope in a similar situation. It was chilling and frightening, because her family doesn’t react to their new circumstances like heroes in a story; they react like a regular family.
Miranda was an excellent narrator. Somehow, Susan Beth Pfeffer was able to really crawl inside the mind of a 16-year-old girl. She had the invincibility syndrome that so many teenagers have, convincing herself time and time again that nothing was going to change, that everything would soon return to normal, that things couldn’t possibly get any worse. I found myself infuriated with her when she argued against her mother’s rationing of their food, or her brother’s stockpiling of firewood. I groaned inwardly every time she mentioned that she couldn’t imagine how things could get worse, since obviously, they could. But she reacted the way I expect many teenagers would react — she resisted the magnitude of the situation, and opted instead to focus on whether or not there would still be a prom, or how her favorite figure skater was doing. But my frustrations with her character are actually a testament to the strength of the writing — I believed I was listening to a 16-year-old.
On the flip side, I loved Miranda’s mother. She was level-headed, forward-thinking, and did a marvelous job of looking out for her family. Yes, she made mistakes, had her moments of selfishness, and there were occasions where Miranda’s conflicts with her were perfectly justified. But no matter how bad things got, Miranda’s mother continued to display the kind of sacrifice and perseverance that I feel exemplifies a parent’s love for her child.
I also enjoyed the development of Miranda’s brothers, Jonny and Matt, and their neighbor, Mrs. Nesbitt. I came away from the book feeling like I really knew and understood these characters.
As for the progression of the story itself, I found it mostly believable. Miranda’s family found themselves situated in the best possible scenario in the case of global disaster: their house had oil heat, a gas stove, a wood-burning stove in a separate room, and well water. Convenient, yes, but not unrealistic — these houses do exist, after all. There were parts of the story I found far-fetched, such as being able to immediately hop onto the Internet and surf fan sites every time the electricity turned back on for 10 minutes, but those irritations were minor in the grand scheme of things. There was also a bit of propaganda the author wove into the story that I thought felt a bit awkward and out of place, but again, it didn’t really lessen my enjoyment of the overall tale.
The way the world slowly crumbled around Miranda and her family seemed disturbingly accurate. Humanity didn’t simply plunge into chaos; it descended in increments. Businesses stayed open. Currency still held value. Schools held classes. It was only as the weeks and months progressed that the direness of their situation is truly revealed. I found myself holding my breath as I wondered what could possibly happen next.
Overall, I found this to be a sad yet hopeful look at family, society, and friendship. It was a story of strength, survival and triumph, but also loss and regret. The story progressed in a quiet manner, with very little action or fanfare, and was more pensive than nail-biting. Its strengths were the characters, the relationships, and the incredibly well though-out progression from life as we know it to the world that Miranda’s family unwillingly finds themselves in.
Note: While this book does have two sequels, The Dead and the Gone and This World We Live In, I felt the ending was satisfying enough for this to have been a standalone novel. I do intend on reading the sequels, but if they didn’t exist, I still would have been satisfied.
Content Guide: Survivalist scenarios in post-apocalyptic modern world, starvation, death of several characters