Jess is an overweight 14-year-old girl stuck in the car with her religious fanatic parents and her pregnant, anorexic sister. The family is driving 2,500 miles to California so they can be among the last people to witness the Rapture.
The premise seems tailor-made for this reviewer (in terms of interest, and also the fact that I was once a 14-year-old girl, trapped in the car with my family for what seemed like eternity) but I challenge anyone to read Mary Miller's The Last Days of California and not find some personal resonance in the backseat of that apocalypse-bound wagon. That's because underneath Miller's road trip novel is the age-old story we all lived through: the one where you discover your parents are human. Or, in Jess's case, that they're weak, sometimes pathetic, and probably not happy.
Jess — the serious kid, the good kid, the kid who doesn't get jokes — longs to be more like Elise, her 17-year-old sister whose pregnancy is a secret between the two of them. Elise is wild, beautiful, and funny. She wears the T-shirts their dad has had printed for them ("King Jesus Returns!) with ironic relish, while Jess wears hers in awkward earnest. Elise challenges her father constantly, interrupting his sermons with her teenaged rationale: "It's hard to believe Noah was the only man worth saving." In short, she entertains herself.
Jess, on the other hand, can only cling to the thin scraps of belief she has left (belief in her parents, belief in God) and count the miles until they'll pull in to the next motel and she can stuff her face with pizza while watching bad '80s movies.
But of course, the trip serves as the catalyst for Jess' awakening to some uncomfortable truths. Her father is immature and irresponsible, her mother miserable, and Jess herself is cast in a most unwelcome role.
She was unhappy with us and I wanted to do everything I could to make her stay, to keep her I felt like I had to compensate for my father and sister's behavior. I didn't know why this burden had fallen to me, why I was the one who was unable to be herself, but it had always been this way.
As the family makes their way West, we see them in vignettes with each other: in gas station parking lots, in crappy motels, fast food restaurants, Waffle Houses. "We all knew each other completely differently, in ways that would never overlap." And we watch as Jess grapples with the increasingly likely fact that there will be no Rapture; that she will have to find a middle ground between belief and cynicism. She will have to find a way to live, as herself, alone amongst others.
The Last Days of California isn't quite a young-adult novel, but Jess's smart, funny voice certainly speaks for and to her age group. The book is quirky, heartbreaking, and seriously funny. I'd recommend it to anyone who's ever been a kid.
This review was originally published in January 2014, and has been updated for the September 2014 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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