The Last Days of California is the first person narration of a naive 15-year-old girl on a road trip with her family. We all know that long road trips can be boring, and this one is no different, minute-by-minute. But this family is driving to meet the Rapture, and Jess’s thoughts are all over the place. These could be the last days of her life, and she’s spending them in the back seat of the car with her older sister (who’s mostly texting or on Facebook), occasionally weighing in on where to eat breakfast or which candy bar to buy at the gas station. But when they stop for the night, Jess is experimenting with alcohol and sex for the first time, and keeping big secrets from her parents.
This is not a book for readers who want fast-paced action. This is for realistic fiction readers who appreciate finely drawn voice, setting and character. Miller’s depiction of family dynamics is stunning. She captures the intimacy of travel and the constantly shifting feelings that many teens have about their parents. She also captures the thoughts of a girl who is beginning to evaluate her faith, to go beyond believing simply because of the tradition in which she was raised.
I had a chance to interview the author for the SLJ Teen Newsletter, and thought I would highlight a few of her answers here in order to give you a sense of how deeply she understands the way a teenager thinks. First, why choose Jess as the focus of the novel?
“Jess’s perspective was the most interesting to me because she’s searching—she’s trying to figure out what she believes in, as well as how she fits into the larger world. She’s unsure of everything. The other family members think they have it all figured out, or have resigned themselves to their fate. Either way, they weren’t open to new insights and realizations in the way that Jess was.”
And why is Jess behaving so differently on the road?
“Jess is taking her cues from her older sister, Elise. Elise engages in these reckless behaviors, and Jess wants to see if she can be Elise’s peer instead of the baby of the family. She is also meeting people who don’t have preconceived ideas about her, and this gives her a sense of freedom that she’s never felt before—she can reinvent herself, become someone else even if it’s just for a night. She’s trying out different personas to see which one might fit.”
MILLER, Mary. The Last Days of California. 256p. Liveright: Norton. Jan. 2014. Tr $24.95. ISBN 9780871405883.
Adult/High School–Fifteen-year-old Jess and her family are driving from Montgomery, Alabama, to California to meet the Rapture. Her beautiful sister, Elise, is pregnant at 17, unbeknownst to their parents, and her father has lost yet another job. Wearing their “King Jesus Returns!” T-shirts, they spend their days on the highway where motels, gas stations, and fast -ood outlets blend together. Jess has a lot of time to think. Intermingled with brief conversations and playlists, she ruminates on her plain looks, friends, which junk food to buy at the next stop, and whether the world is actually about to end. She begins to doubt her faith; when she tries to pray, she wonders if she’s been talking to herself all these years. After the family settles into a motel each night, the sisters search out boys to party with. Jess is at a turning point between being a “good girl” and making risky choices on the way to figuring out who she is. She is also beginning to perceive her father’s weaknesses, and Miller gets her conflicted feelings just right. Jess alternately sees how ridiculous he is and feels a protective tenderness towards him. The author has created a haunting, unforgettable atmosphere by combining the boredom and intimacy of riding in a car all day as a family, enervated by the coming end of the world. Jess’s perfect narrative voice captures a young teen’s uncertainty.–Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City