“This World We Live In” by Susan Beth Pfeffer

31 Jan


"This World We Live In" is the third book in Susan Beth Pfeffer's "Last Survivors" series. It's due out in April, but, lucky me, I read an advanced copy right here on my laptop through a cool service called Net Galley. Blogger-reviewer types out there should definitely scan the offerings at Net Galley. You don't need any special gadgets and with a five-second download of Adobe Digital Editions, you're in business.

Right, the actual book review. Sorry, I'm so easily sidetracked at times! I'm going to assume folks are familiar with the back story here, since this is book three. Short version: An asteroid struck the moon, causing a series of cataclysmic events, including tsunamis, volcanoes, and earthquakes. Millions died, cities were destroyed, and life became a fragile, fickle thing. In the first book, "Life As We Knew It," we see the slow destruction of everyday life through the eyes of Miranda, a teenager in northern Pennsylvania. The same series of events is again depicted in "The Dead and the Gone," focusing on the chaos in New York City as it affects a teenage parochial school student named Alex.

This time around, we're back in Pennsylvania and Miranda is once more recounting daily events in her precious diary. Her family — Mom, older brother Matt, younger brother Jon, and pet cat Horton — have all suffered through a thoroughly miserable winter. They've starved, scavenged, fought, cried, and huddled together in their sunroom, but somehow they've managed to survive. They now face a gray, frigid spring with few prospects for food and even less hope.

On a fishing trip to the Delaware River, Matt and Jon return with much-needed shad as well as a big surprise — Matt's new wife, Syl. Syl is pretty much the definition of a survivor, having endured evacuation camps, transient groups of travelers, and some not so great men. Matt falls for her instantly, as she's beautiful and exotic. It's never clear if Syl loves Matt or is just glad to have found, at long last, a measure of safety. And that's as it should be, because Syl herself might not know. Syl is a complicated character, new age-y at times (she leads a sacrifice to Diana, the moon goddess) and jarringly practical at others (scolding Miranda to stop thinking and keep working after a cave-in).

Before the family can adjust to Syl's presence, Miranda's dad, Hal; his second wife, Lisa; infant Gabriel; traveling friend Charlie; and two siblings, Alex and Julie (yes! the same siblings from "The Dead and the Gone") arrive at the house after an arduous, frightening cross-country journey. The new folks set up residence in an abandoned neighborhood house, radically expanding Miranda's tiny world and giving her access, for the first time in a year, to a strange new teenage boy.

I loved the merging of the two main characters from the first two novels. As readers, we know much more about each of them than they do about each other, allowing us to see hidden meanings and motives in their statements and actions. For example, no one knows of Alex's past in robbing corpses and "failing" to save his little sister Briana. As such, Alex's intense, almost zealous efforts to protect Julie play out differently for the characters in the book than for the readers at home. It's an excellent dichotomy.

I hate to spoil any plot points, but let me just say that I 100% believed that Miranda and Alex — like Matt and Syl, and even to some extent, Jon and Julie — could fall so quickly and ferociously into a romantic relationship. In hard, uncertain times, it makes perfect sense for people, particularly young, impetuous people, to grab hold of each other. When there is no promise of tomorrow, folks must abandon caution to, once again, feel alive and less alone.

I also loved how the introduction of new players changed what had been a rigid family dynamic with Mom in charge and Matt as the surrogate dad and disciplinarian. Suddenly, stark fear, plays for power and control, and even flashes of true ugliness over sharing scarce resources, become daily occurrences. Author Pfeffer beautifully balances this darkness with small glimpses of hope and sacrifice. At the novel's end, Miranda twice follows through on nearly impossible, utterly heartbreaking decisions, revealing just how far she has come from the spoiled girl who loved only boys and figure skating. These moments are gut wrenching to experience and will stay with the reader long after the novel ends.

Speaking of the novel's end, this one finishes up on a bit of a cliffhanger, as the surviving characters are forced to leave Pennsylvania and seek safety elsewhere. What will happen on their trip? Who will survive? Oh, Susan Beth Pfeffer, you'd better have another book up your very capable sleeves! Until then, middle and high school readers can look for "This World We Live In" in April. I'm sure they'll love this fast-paced, compelling story as much as I did. Enjoy!

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Posted by on January 31, 2010 in Uncategorized


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