The Last Days of California

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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, ...
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The Last Days of California

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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.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

The Metcalf family is headed to California to witness the return of Jesus. For teenager Jess and her older sister Elise motoring to the Rapture is only part of the strangeness of their lives; for one thing, Elise is pregnant and the whole family seems to be splintering in odd directions. This first novel by Mary Miller (Big World) perfectly registers the inner feelings of two sisters experiencing the beginnings of a new life.

The New York Times Book Review - Laurie Muchnick
Spending four days in a car with teenagers who don't want to be there sounds like a recipe for literary disaster, but Miller's pacing is so sure that we feel Jess's claustrophobia without experiencing it…The sentences in The Last Days of California take their time…piling up clauses and veering into detours, but they never call attention to themselves…which is appropriate, since Jess doesn't like to call attention to herself, and the book is perfectly shaped to reflect her observant sensibility…Sometimes the novel feels like a poem, each day on the road like a stanza repeated with slight variations and brand names used as incantations: McDonald's, Taco Bell, Target, Krispy Kreme. Miller always chooses just the right detail to illuminate life in the 2010s…
Publishers Weekly
★ 10/07/2013
The Metcalf family may be road-tripping toward the Rapture in California in Miller’s debut novel, but the cross-country journey marks the beginning, rather than the end, of an examined life for her 15-year-old narrator, Jess. Between discovering that her prayer-happy father has lost his job and finding the positive pregnancy test that her 17-year-old sister, Elise, took in a Biloxi hotel bathroom, young Jess has plenty on her mind, as middle America speeds past the windows of the family’s Taurus. With so much in flux, she starts asking questions—about their matching black “King Jesus Returns!” T-shirts, about the purity ring her father gave her, and about herself. Meanwhile, Jess and Elise set a course for debauchery in roadside hotels, drinking and partying with any boys they can attract. It’s an apocalypse-driven ripening for Jess. 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. (Jan.)
Catherine Straut - ELLE
“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.”
Hannah Hickok - Redbook
“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.”
Elliott Holt
“On a family road trip to witness the Rapture, fifteen-year-old Jess learns that the only person she's going to save is herself. The Last Days of California is an affecting coming-of-age story from an inspired new voice.”
Michele Filgate
“A coming-of-age novel for the faithful and the faithless—and anyone in-between.”
Elizabeth McCracken
“Hilarious and heartbreaking, dark and beautiful, a novel written by one of the most observant and mordant writers alive…This book is terrific.”
Wiley Cash
“The Last Days of California is a literary snapshot of our times that portrays the affirmation and doubt we often find in family and faith. This coming-of-age story of a young girl whose family is on a cross-country trip to witness Armageddon is, at its core, the story of this country's push and pull with popular culture, religious zealotry, and the human element that drives both. Like our heroine, Jess, asks of herself, The Last Days of California implores the reader to consider two very basic questions: ‘Who are we, and who do we want to be?’”
Alexis Smith
“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.”
Matt Bell
“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.”
Tupelo Hassman
“Go on this road trip with Miller's heroine, Jess. You couldn't ask for a better companion across a country and a family's wastelands. Through Jess, Miller manages wisdom without cynicism, creates a teenager with grace and warmth and lessons to share for burnt-out adults bored of irony. Get in the car and roll through the great questions about how to have faith in god or family or country, get in the car and become a believer.”
Laurie Muchnick - New York Times Book Review
“[A] terrific first novel…The Last Days of California joins a number of other recent novels written from the perspective of children or teenagers—Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles, Lauren Groff’s Arcadia. It’s hard to figure out why some are published as ‘young adult’ while others aren’t, but why worry about labeling a book this good? Just read it.”
William Boyle - Los Angeles Review of Books
“The Last Days of California is a beautiful examination of youth and family and what it means to be alive (and to fear dying) in contemporary America…every scene…tremble[s] with significance… Rarely, if ever, have we seen young American womanhood painted in such a raw and honest and heartbreaking way.”
Emily Colette Wilkinson
“The Last Days of California…is the debut of a promising new voice, a voice that describes the painful longing for transcendence and connectedness with compelling vividness and candor.”
Michele Filgate
“A coming-of-age novel for the faithful and the faithless—and anyone in-between.”
Library Journal
★ 01/01/2014
The Metcalfs, an evangelical family from Montgomery, AL, are on their way to California for the Rapture. Fifteen-year-old Jess, a puzzled observer of her family's fault lines, narrates the westward journey through the Deep South. Obedient (she hands out religious tracts at rest stops), protective (her beautiful, bad-girl 17-year-old sister, Elise, is secretly pregnant, and Jess worries about her and the unborn baby's safety), curious (the separate motel rooms provide cover for decidedly nonevangelical explorations of drinking and boys), and devoted (for all the Metcalf family flaws, they love one another), Jess is a delightful, sharply funny chronicler of the exquisite details and spot-on dialog that are unique to the best Southern fiction. VERDICT Miller, known for her short stories (Big World), has written an irresistible first novel that brings a steady-eyed look at a part of the American conversation that is too often caricatured. A sure-handed master of the Southern psyche, Miller has earned all the early buzz on this one. [See Prepub Alert, 10/28/13.]—Beth Andersen, Ann Arbor Dist. Lib., MI
Kirkus Reviews
Miller (Big World, stories, 2009) puts a family on the road but doesn't give them much to do in her aimless first novel. You'd think that people expecting to be taken up by the rapture in three days would be a lot more cheerful than the Metcalfs are when we first encounter them in Louisiana. But it soon becomes clear that only Dad has much invested in the end of the world, and that might be because he's lost his job again; there isn't any other apparent reason he has insisted that the family drive from their home in Alabama to experience the rapture in California. Mom is listlessly along for the ride (readers may well feel the same), and oldest daughter Elise aggressively challenges Dad's professions of faith at every opportunity. She's the family's designated bad girl, although at present, only her sister Jess, Miller's 15-year-old narrator, knows that she's pregnant. As they meander across Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, staying in crummy motels and eating in bad restaurants, Jess worries about her weight, her sister's pregnancy and the unanswerable enigma of why Elise is prettier and more popular than she is. The religious angle mostly gets dropped in favor of Jess' adolescent angst; two sexual encounters with boys who actually do think she's cute seem intended to show Jess gaining some self-respect, but they're mostly sordid and sad. The Metcalfs witness a fatal car accident, Jess and Elise encounter some strange fellow motel visitors, but there's no narrative drive to the events; even the rapture's failure to happen is greeted with a shrug. This lack of affect may be the point of Miller's deadpan narrative, which substitutes the brand names of junk food and Hollywood movies for social observation, but it doesn't make for compelling fiction. Drab and dreary.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780871405883
  • Publisher: Liveright Publishing Corporation
  • Publication date: 1/20/2014
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 104,051
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet 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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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Mary Miller, Author of The Last Days of California

The Last Days of California is about a family traveling west to proselytize before the rapture. What inspired you to write about the end of days and a family with such mixed religious conviction?

It was May of 2011 and the end had not come despite Harold Camping's (second) prediction. One morning I was reading the newspaper and there was an article about a father who took his family on a cross-country road trip to await the rapture in Pacific Time. There was no explanation as to why, or what purpose this trip might have served; there were no details whatsoever. I wondered what would compel someone to do this. I wondered what this man's children were like, what they thought of this endeavor.

The next thing I knew, I had a family of four sitting at a Waffle House in western Louisiana. As I wrote, I had to figure each of them out—what they wanted, where they stood on the issue of the rapture, salvation. But there were more immediate questions. Who had to use the bathroom? Who was starving, carsick, etc.?

The relationship between Jess and Elise is one of the richest in the novel. Do you think there's something particular or unusual about sisters that inspire so much competition, emotion, empathy, etc?

It's just Jess and Elise, and they're two years apart, so it's automatically going to be a compare/contrast situation. Which one is prettier, more athletic, more popular? They're going to compare themselves to each other because they are the other's closest mirror.

Jess is intensely jealous of Elise's beauty, but she's also her sister's staunchest champion. She loves no one more, wants nothing more than Elise's approval, attention, love. I think this is pretty typical of sisters, particularly those who are equally smart and sensitive but differ in more superficial ways.

The American road trip is part of a long cultural tradition. How do you feel about our road culture? Why did it appeal to you as a setting for the novel?

My impulse is to say that I love road trips, but this isn't true. I would like to be the kind of person who loves road trips, but, for me, it's more the destination, not the journey. I seem to attract extremely heavy downpours, and the areas I typically drive through aren't all that scenic—eastern Texas, central Louisiana, southern Mississippi. I only like to stop if there's a candy store or a bakery involved and it's not out of the way (I recommend the Pecan House in McHenry, Mississippi, and Czech Stop and Little Czech Bakery in West, Texas).
The road trip is a great setting for a novel, though, at least from a writer's perspective. It creates an inherent structure and forward momentum. It answers the most basic question: What do the characters want? Of course the characters want other things, as well, like to get out of the damn car, in which case you also have conflict.

This is your first novel, but for years you've written short stories. What was it like to switch from one format to the other? Did anything surprise you about writing a novel as opposed to a short story?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 2.5
( 2 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 3, 2014

    Just save your money!

    This book was like one long chapter..of a ridiculous story.I finished it because I kept waiting for..something..anything.It was tedious.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 27, 2014

    Too much $

    A great story but too expensive for 148 pages!!

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