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The Last Days of California

The Last Days of California

4.2 14
by Mary Miller

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“[A] terrific first novel. . . . Why worry about labeling a book this good? Just read it.”—Laurie Muchnick, New York Times Book Review

Jess is fifteen years old and waiting for the world to end. Her evangelical father has packed up the family to drive west to California, hoping to save as many souls as possible before the Second


“[A] terrific first novel. . . . Why worry about labeling a book this good? Just read it.”—Laurie Muchnick, New York Times Book Review

Jess is fifteen years old and waiting for the world to end. Her evangelical father has packed up the family to drive west to California, hoping to save as many souls as possible before the Second Coming. With her long-suffering mother and rebellious (and secretly pregnant) sister, Jess hands out tracts to nonbelievers at every rest stop, Waffle House, and gas station along the way. As Jess’s belief frays, her teenage myopia evolves into awareness about her fracturing family. Selected as a Barnes & Noble Discover pick and an Indie Next pick, Mary Miller’s radiant debut novel reinvigorates the literary road-trip story with wry vulnerability and savage charm.

Editorial Reviews

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.)
Elliott Holt
“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
“A literary snapshot of our times that portrays the affirmation and doubt we often find in family and faith.”
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.”
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.”
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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Liveright Publishing Corporation
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Meet the Author

Mary Miller is the author of The Last Days of California and the short story collection Big World. She is a former James A. Michener Fellow in Fiction and John and Renée Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi. She lives in Gulfport, Mississippi.

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The Last Days of California: A Novel 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 14 reviews.
WyattSparks More than 1 year ago
Few books offer so much wit, complexity, and ambiguity.  Deep empathy for her characters and the world at large on every page. Also highly recommend Miller's book of short stories out with Hobart.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is the best book I've read so far in 2014. I didn't know what to expect when I first picked it up. I knew the plot contained references to an apocalyptic scenario of some kind, and that usually means zombies and nuclear explosions and such. However, Miller takes a more personal and interesting approach to the subject, following a religious family on a road trip across the country as they attempt to reach California before the fire and brimstone hit the fan. The narrator is a young girl who is struggling with her faith and feelings of sexual awakening. Every thought in her head is hilarious and heartbreaking. The family is extremely flawed, and as the road trip progresses, the conflicts escalate. There are no zombies or nuclear explosions. This is not your typical dystopian apocalypse story--it's something better.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is the best book I've read in a long time. The family at the center of the story is heartbreakingly real, especially the father. If you are or have been an adolescent you will see yourself in these characters. The writing is neat and urgent, lots of memorable images. The end was surprising, satisfying, and one you don't see coming. Loved every page of it. Recommend to anyone with a beating heart.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Fresh air in book form, this little diddy will make you glad that books still exist. Pick it up for a beach read or lay by your computer when you the screen stops making sense; even punctured by distraction, you'll finish it in no time....and you'll be glad you did. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Mary Miller packs quiet insight into lives that seem at first to be quotidian, but open up with vast complexities in everyday spaces. Miller crafts stories of desperate people with such care that one cannot help but be both with them and apart, as if seeing a fire burn too brightly. I I'ts not often that I finish a book in just a couple of days, but this thing had me all the way. Mary's sentences turn beautifully, her insights flare like supernovas, and there is great humor in this tale. 
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Mary Miller is an exceptional writer and storyteller. I read this book in two long sittings and loved every page. Can't wait for her next book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
BarrettBloom More than 1 year ago
When I read the reviews for The Last Days of California, I expected a coming-of-age story, but to reduce this clever, sometimes dark and often tender novel to a 'coming-of-age' story, is to do it a disservice. In Jess and her apocalypse-hungry parents and just-pregnant prettier sister Elise, Mary Miller slyly reminds us of the keen appetites and yearnings we all share -- for love, for adulation, for the whole array of American fast food, for money, for sex, for salvation, and even for damnation.  On their road trip from Montgomery to destinations west, in what their father is convinced are the last days before the rapture, Jess and Elise travel their own backseat journey. But their compass points toward adventure, not the end times. Yes, there are comic and sexual episodes.  And yes, there are mishaps, flat tires, swindles, a flea market, a casino--and death--along the way. But the plot is only one pleasure. Seeing life via Jess holds as many satisfactions. Because they're in high school, Jess and Elise waver between youth and adulthood. They share a hotel bed like small children, where Jess notes, Elise was "so close that she could only look into one of my eyes at a time." Jess is a fond younger sister, who doesn't want to go to heaven if Elise won't be there -- she'd rather chance a post-Armageddon earth overrun with criminals intent on stealing their food and guns. Jess ruminates that Elise, "was the only skinny one, and I was glad for it because I didn't want our whole family to be overweight--it would seem like a fundamental flaw, like something we'd never overcome." Under a bleach-scented motel sheet she recalls a tv show about pests. "The family with bedbugs had closed them up in a suitcase and carried them home from a motel just like this one. The bugs were hard and adapted to survive, moving up and down the stairs on the children's stuffed animals." And she's a casual but cunning observer. Of her parents: "My mother put a hand on the back of his neck and told him he was doing a good job, which she did when he was doing a bad job." And of her mother: "She seemed like a nice person, doing all the nice things nice people did....but when one of her best friends died, she hadn't even seemed sad about it." The real destination in this utterly satisfying story is nowhere near California--it's an interior journey, and you'll be richly rewarded if you ride there with Jess.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A lovely novel to add to the bildungsroman genre, and one that folks who label themselves literary and folks who just want a good story will enjoy equally. Beautiful, finely drawn characters.  Nobody can beat Mary Miller in those diamond-bursts of insight, either.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A great story but too expensive for 148 pages!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was like one long chapter..of a ridiculous story.I finished it because I kept waiting for..something..anything.It was tedious.