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The Last Days of Californiaby Mary Miller
This brief, candid novel about an evangelical girl's sexual and intellectual awakenings is one of my favorite books for 2014. Miller deftly conveys teenage angst and self-absorption while creating an equally compelling portrait of the religious and cultural trappings of the modern American South.
Synopses & Reviews
A teenage girl and her unraveling family travel cross-country in preparation for the Rapture in this radiant, highly anticipated debut.
Fifteen-year-old Jess is on a road trip to the end of the world. Her evangelical father has packed up the family and left their Montgomery, Alabama, home behind to drive west in anticipation of the rapture, hoping to save as many souls as possible before the imminent Second Coming. With her long-suffering mother and her rebellious sister Elise, Jess hands out tracts to nonbelievers at every rest stop, Waffle House, and gas station along the way. Through sticky diners and in crowded motel pools, beneath bleached bedspreads and in the backseat of the family car, Jess and Elise whisper and squabble their way across the country. But as doomsday approaches, Jess can't seem to work up any real fear about the apocalypse when her sister's secret pregnancy and their increasingly frayed parents loom so much larger.
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.
"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." Publishers Weekly, Starred Review
"The Last Days of California is the Sense and Sensibility of pre-Apocalypse America, and Jess and Elise may be my new favorite literary sisters: different as night and day, on a road trip to the Rapture with their Evangelical parents, they find they have nothing to lose but each other. Mary Miller is a ventriloquist of adolescent angst and a nervy surveyor of American culture." Alexis Smith, author of Glaciers
"The Last Days of California is a road novel reinvented for our apocalypse-obsessed age, a coming-of-age story so precisely insightful about our contemporary life that it seems as if it could only have been written from the future. If the Rapture comes, I'll gladly be left behind if it means getting to read more books by the extraordinary Mary Miller: She possesses one of the boldest new voices in fiction, a speech born out of the South but that aims to speak for all of America — and succeeds." Matt Bell, author of In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods
"Miller's depiction of a squabbling, love-you-one-minute, hate-you-the-next family dynamic is spot-on, hilarious, and ultra-relatable....Sometimes a road-trip novel, particularly one as compulsively devourable as The Last Days of California, is just what you need to get that elusively giddy, hopeful feeling back." Redbook
"Miller portrays her characters...with an unwavering intensity....Miller's prose bestows a magnetic beauty on gas-station bathroom stops, Waffle House lunches, and the cast of overfed, overstimulated travelers the Metcalfs encounter along the interstates....A plangent portrait of American adolescence....[She delivers] raw the heartbreaking futility of the Metcalfs' small triumphs, private embarrassments, and poor decisions with such hilarious precision that you become completely involved in their struggles — and, ultimately, in awe of their abiding hope." ELLE
About the Author
Mary Miller is the author of the short story collection Big World. Her work has been published in dozens of journals and anthologies, including McSweeney's Quarterly, Mississippi Review, and American Short Fiction. She has been granted a Michener Fellowship at the University of Texas and the John and Reneé Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi. She hails from Mississippi and currently lives in Austin, Texas.
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