So all these dystopian novels are beginning to get to me . . . after finishing Laura Kasischke’s haunting In A Perfect World, I had an irrational and overwhelming urge to stockpile canned goods, water and firewood — though I have no fireplace. What difference does that make, right? If a plague is spreading across the United States, you better believe I’ll build a firepit and bunker down. Or, you know, my dad will do it.
Kasischke’s work is the story of Jiselle Dorn, newly wedded to the gorgeous and charismatic pilot Captain Mark Dorn. At 32 and never married, Jiselle is completely wooed by Mark’s stylish courtship and eager to begin a life with him. Her marriage brings her to the Chicago suburb of St. Sophia, a quaint and cozy town where Mark lives with his three children. Camilla, Sara and Sam put on a happy face as Jiselle arrives but waste no time undermining her authority. Petulant Sara, the most unhappy of all, scribbles terrible things in her journal — which she conveniently leaves out for Jiselle to find.
And Mark is traveling all the time. Alone with the kids after she’s given up her job as a flight attendant, Jiselle struggles to find a place within her new family — and to identify, for the first time, as a mother. Her days drag on, filled with chores and reading and lounging on the cabin’s deck, which overlooks a deep ravine. And missing Mark, of course; her longing for him to return, to “save” her, is palpable.
Underscoring the family drama happening in In A Perfect World is a much greater threat: an influenza, called the Phoenix Flu, is spreading across the United States, infecting scores of Americans. Fearing the worst, the global community has turned away from us, sealing their borders and refusing to give us aid; a vaccine does not exist. After a well-known pop star dies of the Phoenix Flu, the threat of infection seems to be everywhere. Life continues for Jiselle and the kids in St. Sophia, but no one seems to be safe. Or to even know what “safe” is any longer.
At many times reminiscent of Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life As We Knew It and its absolute apocalyptic feel, Kasischke’s work focuses on the aspect of survival and the growth of an unconventional family. While Pfeffer’s teenage narrator wrote in her diary about the daily tasks of attempting to survive in a world without power, heat, food and an alleviation of boredom, Kasischke’s book is much more emotional; less about the mechanics of a spreading flu and more about the effect of the flu on the psyche.
Starting the novel, I was pretty sure I was going to despise Jiselle. She seemed hopelessly naive, ignoring the cautions of her mother that Mark, while loving, was merely looking for a babysitter to tend to his children. As Mark’s presence becomes less and less a part of their daily lives, Jiselle’s transformation is absolute and apparent. For a woman who was single and childless just a year ago, she adapts quickly — and well.
Kasischke’s background in poetry is very evident; many of her turns of phrase stopped me dead in my tracks. She writes in gorgeous, lilting prose and her words, carefully chosen, seem to add an extra weight to everything happening in the country — and at home. One of my favorites:
One historian Jiselle heard interviewed on NPR said, in a voice so low it sounded like the source of gravity itself, that a return to traditions often preceded the complete collapse of a culture.
And, indeed, the culture seems to implode upon itself. Life In A Perfect World is anything but perfect, littered with fear, uncertainty, illness and grief. The novel, while beautiful, is disturbing — mostly because the “Phoenix Flu” seems, at times, oddly reminiscent of a certain illness that has many Americans currently stocking up on anti-bacterial hand gel and covering their faces with surgical masks. At many Sunday services, parishoners are discouraged from shaking hands; at work places, mandatory handwashing stations have been set up all over the buildings. And that’s happening now — in our own world. So reading about an avian flu that sweeps across the U.S., killing off scores of citizens? Yeah, not exactly uplifting reading.
But I have to say — I actually really liked this book. Kasischke’s interesting writing kept me enthralled and, as the kids and Jiselle come to rely more and more upon each other, I actually felt their bonds plucking at my heart strings. They’re not beyond redemption — nothing is. And while I don’t think the novel had quite the ultimately hopeful feel as Life As We Knew It, it didn’t leave me despondent, either.
Actually, after I turned the final page, I felt more than a little stunned. Some controversy surrounds the novel’s ending, I know, but I was pleased with how it turned out. Sometimes we have far more questions than answers — and sometimes, the resolution never does come. The book is just like life in that way — how we know it, and otherwise.
Lovers of dystopian fiction or those interested in apocalyptic tales while find plenty to “enjoy” (can you enjoy these stories, really?) here, and readers with a taste for family-based struggles and stories will be intrigued by the Dorn clan. Every character eventually won me over — including, and probably especially, Jiselle. A worthwhile but disturbing look at the breakdown of a culture . . . and the creation of a family.
4 out of 5!
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours