In this fresh and razor-sharp debut novel, teenage angst and evangelical ardor make a pilgrimage across an endlessly interchangeable American landscape of highways, motels, and strip malls. Sporting a "King Jesus Returns " t-shirt and well stocked with end-times pamphlets, Jess makes semi-earnest efforts to believe but is thwarted at every turn by a string of familiar and yet freshly rendered teenage obsessions. From "Will the world end?" to "Will I ever fall in love?" each tender worry, big and small, is brilliantly rendered with emotional weight. Mary Miller reinvents the classic American literary road-trip story, reviving its august traditions with the yearning and spiritual ennui of twenty-first-century adolescence. As the last day approaches, Jess's teenage myopia gradually gives way to a growing awareness of the painful undercurrents of her fractured family.
With a deadpan humor and a savage charm that belie a deep sympathy for her characters, Miller captures the gnawing uneasiness, sexual rivalry, and escalating self-doubt of teenage life in America, where the end always seems nigh and our illusions are necessary protections against that which we can't control.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2013-10-07
- Reviewer: Staff
The Metcalf family may be road-tripping toward the Rapture in California in Miller’s debut novel, but the cross-country journey marks the beginning, rather than the end, of an examined life for her 15-year-old narrator, Jess. Between discovering that her prayer-happy father has lost his job and finding the positive pregnancy test that her 17-year-old sister, Elise, took in a Biloxi hotel bathroom, young Jess has plenty on her mind, as middle America speeds past the windows of the family’s Taurus. With so much in flux, she starts asking questions—about their matching black “King Jesus Returns!” T-shirts, about the purity ring her father gave her, and about herself. Meanwhile, Jess and Elise set a course for debauchery in roadside hotels, drinking and partying with any boys they can attract. It’s an apocalypse-driven ripening for Jess. Beyond the well-crafted coming-of-age narrative, Miller gets every little detail about the South—from the way the sky greens before a storm to gas stations where Hank Williams Jr.’s “Family Tradition” blares—just right. But it’s Jess’s earnest, searching voice, as she contemplates her parents, the trip, and their values, that lingers after Miller’s story has finished. In Jess, Miller has created a narrator worthy of comparison with those of contemporaries such as Karen Thompson Walker and of greats such as Carson McCullers. (Jan.)
A fractured family awaits the rapture
If you knew the world was going to end in less than a week, how would you spend your final days? Though few people would likely answer that question by piling into a car and taking a road trip across the country, in Mary Miller’s The Last Days of California, that’s exactly what the Metcalfs choose to do. Believing they will soon ascend to their rightful home in the kingdom of heaven, this family of four sets out from Alabama with the goal of reaching California by the end of the week so that they might be among the last people on Earth to witness the impending Rapture.
As with all epic pilgrimages, there are plenty of bumps along the way. For 15-year-old Jess, the end of the world might be a welcome relief given the host of worries she’s juggling. From her exasperated parents, whom she just can’t understand (and what’s worse, they don’t have a clue about what to do with her either) to her beautiful but rebellious older sister, Elise, who smokes and drinks and is also secretly pregnant, Jess has more than her fair share of earthly problems. As the family weaves through the Midwest, each day offers Jess new questions to ponder and new temptations to resist or surrender to. Jess begins to wonder how many other people she can ultimately save if it means losing herself in the process.
The Last Days of California tells a traditional coming-of-age tale within an apocalyptic framework, a narrative marriage that works beautifully. Witnessing Jess’ despair and wonder as she awkwardly lurches through an increasingly foreign world feels like being right back in the middle of one’s own raw, aching teenage years, where confusion and hormones rule and every blunder feels fatal.
Reveling in the dysfunction of its characters, The Last Days of California is no fairy tale, but it is timely, true and—at times—even a little bit tender. Miller is a talent to watch.
Don't miss our Q&A with Mary Miller about The Last Days of California.