The Last Days of California is one of those debuts that makes you want to follow the trajectory of the author’s career. Mary Miller has put together a debut novel that gives just enough of herself to hook the reader, without leaving them wondering how she’s going to top it. The characters are well developed, especially the sisters at the center of things, and the relationships are beautifully explored. It’s a well-crafted but not overly ambitious first novel.
Jess and her family are on a road trip. They’re on the road trip to end all road trips actually, they’re headed to California to be among the last to witness the second coming of Jesus Christ and be raptured. Her father is a fundamentalist evangelical Christian, her mother is a former-Catholic, and her sister is secretly pregnant. With all of this going on, Jess is also facing the sorts of questions that plague every fifteen-year-old girl. Questions of physical beauty and attractiveness to the opposite sex, something her sister has no problems with; questions of identity and who she wants to grow up to be, assuming the world doesn’t actually end; and questions of religion and faith, she wants to believe what her parents believe but would it be ok if she doesn’t? Jess searches for the answers to these questions as she and her family race the end of the world to California.
This novel is at its core a character study of a teenage girl. Jess is in a crazy situation: her dad is prepping for doomsday, she’s thousands of miles from home, and her sister is possibly going to be having a baby. This unique situation leads to a more interesting exploration of those dilemmas faced by every teenage girl. At the beginning of the story, Jess thinks of herself a certain way: the good kid, the ugly sister, an obedient daughter. But by the end of the novel she’s turned that description on its head.
Her relationship with her sister is so touching. They are so close even through their differences. Elise is the wild child, able to “make friends and mistakes easily.” Jess is cautious and follows all of the rules. But while they’re on this crazy trip with their parents, the differences start to dissipate.
I didn’t want this book to end when it did. I want to know what happens next? How does this family go about returning to their lives after the disappointment of the world not actually ending? I want more of them and of Miller’s writing. Which is how you know this is the perfect debut novel.
The Last Days of California