Book: The Last Days of California by Mary Miller
Rating: 4.25/5 stops at the casino before the rapture
Recommended if you like: books that look at the imperfect underbellies of religious families; coming of age tales; road trip stories
First lines: “It was Wednesday and we hadn’t even made it to Texas yet. We’d been sleeping late, swimming during daylight hours, but we were going to have to move if we wanted to make it to California in time.”
Published: January 2014 by Liveright/W.W. Norton & Co., 256 pages
A review copy was provided by W.W. Norton & Co.
First things first: I would not call this book YA. I have seen it listed as YA, and that doesn’t feel particularly right to me as a designation. So if you’re like me and you tend to de-prioritize books in the YA category, don’t be too quick to put this one aside. (But if you’re looking for mature YA-esque books for your young’uns, this one would be a good candidate.)
I caught this book on Goodreads; a friend had it listed as “to-read”, and that bright orange cover just screams “road book.” I love road books. Shit, I worship at the altar of Kerouac. So I clicked, and I found out that The Last Days of California is so, so much more than a road book.
The Last Days of California follows the Metcalf family as they travel from Alabama to California. The reason for their road trip? They’re evangelist-types and their
cult clan is convinced that the rapture is imminent. Dad is the primary believer (Mom used to be a–gasp!–Catholic), and he decides to pack up the car and max out the credit cards, because The End is Near and they’re on a pilgrimage to their leader. Fifteen-year-old Jess is the awkward main character; her older sister, Elise, is rebellious and a little pregs.
To recap: southern evangelists, road trip to California, teenage rebellion and awkwardness. I pretty much had to read it, you know?
And Ms. Miller didn’t disappoint on any count. I was left a little breathless at times, actually, with how much I was reminded of my own teenage years, specifically the need to sneak around so I could have my own adventures. One might think that conservative, Christian parents might always have the thumb on their kids, but it isn’t so; every time Jess and Elise circumvented their parents with almost pathetic ease, I practically had flashbacks.
The story is primarily Jess’s story, and your heart aches for her. She’s the younger, chubbier, supposedly less-pretty, expected-to-fill-the-obedience-void sister. She’s the one who wants to strike out on her own, but has mixed messages about what that means. Elise sleeps with boys, swears, and questions her father’s faith at every turn; she’s the reigning champ of teenage rebellion in the family, and she has a push-pull relationship with Jess that makes it both inevitable and impossible for Jess to follow directly in her footsteps.
And Jess is a lovely person, though she doesn’t know it yet. She’s got an amazing loyal and loving side that balances out the mild teenage brat tendencies, that smooths over her conflicts with Elise. She’s a character you want to know more; she and Elise both drive you through the book because you don’t want to leave them.
Miller painted all of the characters beautifully, and their relationships feel real; it’s like reading a memoir, almost. The father has almost the perfect mix of hardcore believer and not-really-believer; you know the type: he has a gambling addiction and wrecks his body with shitty food, but he puts on a very pious face and really thinks he believes what he says. It would be easy to go overboard on a character like that, to make him too much, or make the sister too rebellious, the mom too long-suffering, but Miller’s deft touch kept her cast of characters from being caricatures. She balances them beautifully.
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that, clearly, the rapture doesn’t happen. But so much happens on the way–the characters grow so much–that I don’t think you’ll mind. Do recommend.