Staff Review: The Last Days of California

9780871405883

The Last Days of California

Mary Miller

Liveright Publishing

$24.95

Available January 2014

The road trip novel has been around for as long as people have been writing and telling stories. Ranging from The Odyssey and Canterbury Tales to On the Road and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, this theme lends itself to all times and places. People have not changed all that much, just situations and circumstances.

The Last Days of California, by Mary Miller, is merely one of the newest iterations of the road trip. On first glance, I thought it would be something like Little Miss Sunshine crossed with The Leftovers. Wrong. Sure, it is definitely quirky, and there is supposed to be a rapture, but the similarities end there.

The story is narrated by 15-year-old Jess, who is accompanied by Elise, her 17-year-old sister, and their parents. This family is on a one-way road trip from their home in Alabama to California, where they and other faithful followers will all be raptured.

At least, that’s the plan.

Both Jess and Elise are typical teenagers, obsessed with boys and sex, whether they are going to stay in a fleabag motel again, their next meal, and bickering with each other and their parents. Jess realizes early on in the story that Elise is pregnant, but neither parent is aware. Both of the girls seem spectacularly unconcerned about the eventual outcome of Elise’s pregnancy, living in the moment the way only a teenager can. Instead, Elise spends most of her time rebelling against her parents, angry that she was forced to leave her friends behind. Jess spends her time thinking about the fact that Elise has actually had sex, and wondering if she will ever have sex. She veers from these thoughts to being blissfully happy that she has enough money for a candy binge. Elise doesn’t believe in either God or the rapture. Jess is actually in the process of letting go of the faith of her parents, and trying to discover exactly what, if anything, she does believe.

Jess is critical of their mother in that off-handed way that adolescents have mastered. She paints their father as a clueless bumbler. Their father is the only one in the family who believes in the rapture, and even his belief seems somewhat half-hearted. He seems to be hoping for the rapture as a grand solution to all his problems, as we gradually learn that he may have lost his job (again), may have a gambling problem, and is in denial about his diabetes.

Jess talks in the navel-gazing, sharply observant, and often bitingly funny voice of a teenager. The Last Days of California is really about a family’s journey together. It’s always really more about the journey than the destination anyway.

~ Lysbeth

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