Mary Miller’s The Last Days of California is a quiet epic, the sort you kind of stumble into, and then get stuck—out of pure fascination, and something akin to nostalgia. It’s also the type of novel that feels familiar, harkening to a time, and certain feelings you may have forgotten about in the process of growing up. Fifteen-year-old Jess, her older, darkly glamorous, rebel sister, Elise, and their parents, set out on a road trip to California because the world is ending, and their father believes that the Second Coming is very near. Urged by their evangelical father to distribute tracts to nonbelievers everywhere they go, Jess is subjected to a litany of Waffle Houses and McDonald’s, long stretches of dry, dusty land, and the unfortunate realization that something may be amiss.
Miller writes in quick, decisive language. She is able to capture, completely, the lonesome feelings of a teenage girl, the sisterly squabbles that perpetually erupt in backseats with too little A.C. and not enough legroom, and a child’s realization that parents are just as human, and just as wrong, as the rest of us. From contraband beers, to boys at late nights, to keeping secrets, Miller’s prose is rife with a specific kind of adolescent longing that gnaws at the insides. It is uncomfortable, it is unabashedly honest, and it is beautifully real.
Miller deftly peppers the story with subtle asides—the plight of eating fast food daily, the pros and cons to hamburgers, and the crazy, breathtaking sensation one feels after texting a new boy, for the first time. The novel is largely centered in the car, as well as various hotels—some nice, some terrible, some with open bars and pink, fruity cocktails. It’s just this sort of description that renders her story, both easily digestible, surface-wise, as well as literarily significant. It’s the kind of writing that sinks in it’s teeth, and stays.
Reviewed by MB Sellers
Publisher: Liveright Publishing Corporation
Publication date: 9/2/2014