For some reason my book club chose two books about the end of civilzation as we know it for our August selections. You'd think that during the glorious months of summer we would be reading hopeful books about love and family and fun, but not us! We'd rather read about pandemics, natural disasters, food shortages and how to stay warm during what amounts to a nuclear winter!
Well, whatever the reason, we read Life As We Knew It, by Susan Beth Pfeffer (soon to be reviewed by yours truly on Second Childhood Reviews) and In a Perfect World by Laura Kasischke. While reading both books in a row made me want to start stocking up on canned goods and bottled water, I'm pleased with the selections. Even though the books were about different kinds of disasters leading to the destruction of our comfortable way of life, it was a little like reading the same story told from tw points of view-Life As We Knew It has a teenage girl for a narrator, while In a Perfect World is told from the perspective of a woman in her 30s. But mood of both books was both heartwrenching and ultimately hopeful.
In a Perfect World is the story of Jiselle, a flight attendant, always the bridesmaid, never the bride. When handsome, charming Capt. Mark Dorn starts to court her on their frequent transatlantic flights together, she is honored, and a little bewildered. When he proposes to her just three months after they start dating, she is quick to say yes. The catch-he wants her to quit her job and stay in Wisconsin to raise his three children-two teenage daughters and an eight year old son. Despite her misgivings, and the hostility of the older children, she becomes a stay-at-home stepmom. Looming on the horizon is a disaster with global implications-a new disease, called the Phoenix Flu, that starts as a small epidemic but soon becomes a worldwide threat. When Mark and his plane are detained in Germany, Jiselle is left alone with the children to survive the best they can.
There are really layers of story going on in this novel. First, there is the dubious "love" story between Mark and Jiselle. As I was reading I was pretty sure I knew how it was going to turn out, but I also knew with the certainty of someone who has also convinced herself that a love is true that Jiselle as going to get sucked in. Then there is the story of Jiselle's relationship with the children. While I've never been a step-mother, I am married to one, and I know first-hand how difficult it can be to negotiate the unspoken rules that make each family function. And, of course, at its essence this is a survival story, one that pits humans and their institutions against the vagaries of the natural world. This as a theme is not uncommon in contemporary literature. As we discover more about global warming and the impact that humans have on the planet more and more authors are exploring this idea of man against nature. That theme has existed in literature for much longer than our current climate crisis, but unlike some of those earlier stories, in today's literature nature usually wins, forcing humans to adapt to the new reality of life without the conveniences we have come to rely on.
One of the most interesting things about the story, to me, is the fact that Kasischke chose America as the place where the pandemic begins, and created a world where it was Americans who were denied access to foreign countries, and American products being turned away from prots worldwide, and American flights that weren't allowed to land at the world's airports. Though I don't know the author's intent, the sory felt like an allegory for the way that American culture is exported globally, and the idea that American commercialism and political dominance could be a disease spreading around the globe was inescapable for me. If nothing else, that particular plot point turned the tables on the usual way of things, with America being the arbiter of who and what is worthy to enter our boundaries. I can't believe that was completely accidental on Kasischke's part. All in all, this was an enjoyable, thought-provoking way to spend a beautiful summer day-even if I've probably bought a few too many cans of tuna in the last week or so!