Top Shelf in January: The Last Days of California by Mary Miller
Reviewed by Arian
Within the first few pages of reading The Last Days of California, and without reading her bio, it became very clear to me that Mary Miller has spent time in the South. Her debut novel about two sisters on a road trip with their evangelical parents heading towards the Rapture paints a vivid picture of the truck stops, waffle houses, sunsets, open roads and musty hotels that line the highways of southern America. This was both a very relatable read for me and foreign all at once. As a youth who grew up in Texas and had family in neighboring states, we spent many summers in the car together sans AC, sticking to vinyl seats and arguing about the radio station. But instead of evangelical parents, mine were a couple of hippies taking me to my Great Grandmothers farm. Yet, even with this notable difference, Mary Miller has managed to write a book that crawled inside me and had me folding over pages, underlining sentences, and actually sort of missing what it was like to be 15 and on a road trip with my folks.
Though this is a journey for the members of this family to meet their end, it is also very much a look at the beginning of what it is to be an adolescent on the verge of discovery. Set in the present, the novel is told from the perspective of 15 year old Jess. Her life, like most teenagers, is dictated by her parents, who just happen to believe that the Rapture is coming and they need to get to California before it occurs. Jess and her sister Elise, with their “King Jesus Returns” shirts, chick tracts, and purity rings, are packed up and begin their journey. Jess is the slightly more awkward, slightly more chubby, well behaved sister, while Elise, 17 is the beautiful, thinner, rebellious one. But despite the differences between the two, their relationship is often very touching. Wavering back and forth between her beliefs, Jess becomes somewhat of a middleman between her parents and Elise. This wavering causes questions that manifest themselves through experimentation with alcohol, with drugs and with boys.
As a thirtysomething person, I found it interesting that the feelings that are expressed so brilliantly through Jess’ narrative are feelings that are still so very present in my life. There were moments reading this book when what the sisters were going through gave me such a visceral feeling in my stomach. I had a very real urge, as someone 15 years older than the characters, to reach through the pages and hold their hands and tell them, “Yeah, things like this happen. They probably will again. But you’ll get through it.” Mary Miller has brilliantly captured the heartache, the apathy, the extreme emotions, humor, confusion, and joy of the teenage existence, and perhaps even more so, the female experience.
This book, it would seem in some ways, is a bit of a love letter; to the South, the American road trip, and, most definitely, to being a girl. Mary Miller has taken every raw part of adolescence and written it down in authentic and beautiful detail. It’s a must read for anyone looking for accurate, strong and remarkable female voices in literature.
Signed copies of The Last Days of California are currently available to pre-order via bookpeople.com. The book will be available on our shelves January 20.
Join us here at BookPeople when we host a joint launch event for authors Mary Miller and Sarah Cornwell (What I Had Before I Had You) on Thursday, January 23 at 7pm.