Thursday, February 6, 2014

Book Review: "The Last Days of California" by Mary Miller

Fifteen-year-old Jess and her family have left their home in Montgomery, Alabama, and are driving to California, with the plan to arrive before the Rapture. Along the way, they are committed to saving as many souls as they can—Jess' father wants her and her older sister, Elise, to hand out as many tracts as they can every time they stop at gas stations, fast food restaurants, motels, and the occasional casino. Despite the special and sacred nature of their pilgrimage, this car trip is like one many families experience—Jess and Elise squabble over space in the backseat, their long-suffering mother just wants to read and relax in peace, and their father refuses to use a GPS because he doesn't like machines to tell him what to do.

Other than their father, it doesn't appear that anyone in their family truly believes that the Rapture will actually happen. Elise, who is secretly pregnant, hopes in many ways that it does come, so she won't have to live with the disclosure of her secret. And Jess isn't sure what she believes, about being saved, or anything else for that matter.

"That was my problem—I had no imagination—I couldn't imagine anything other than what I knew. The way time functioned, for example. Minutes. Waiting. How long a day could be. My biggest fear was that things would go on forever and there would never be any end. The idea of forever terrified me, even if we were in heaven and everything was great there."

As her family makes their way across the country, Jess confronts her insecurity with her looks and her body, and her simultaneous envy and relief that guys stare at Elise and not her. She desperately wants something to happen in her life—she wants more meaningful friendships, she wants to fall in love—but in her heart she knows she might not be as ready for these things as she thinks she is. She says, "I didn't know how I could want things so badly while making it impossible to ever get them."

Jess also watches as her parents struggle with their own relationship, with their father's inability to hold a job, their fears about money, and with Elise's erratic behavior. They also struggle with the question of whether the trip will ultimately end in the Rapture, and what will become of their lives if it doesn't occur. Elise can't face the reality of her situation, and isn't sure whether she should keep using her looks to get her the attention she craves. Jess wants things in her family, and their relationships, to remain the same.

"If I wasn't the good daughter, I wouldn't know what I was. I wasn't popular or a cheerleader or a straight A student. ... There were so many things I wasn't that I had difficulty defining myself, especially in relation to Elise, who was so many things."

Mary Miller really told an interesting story, and I found both Jess and Elise's characters to be very dynamic—you knew there was more about them than you first saw. I wasn't sure where the plot would go, and I like the way that Miller ended things, but I thought this was a compelling exploration of how you learn to trust what you know rather than what you're told, and how complicated it can be to find yourself and become comfortable with who you are. This was a really quick read; I read nearly the entire book in about a day.

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