Review: Mary Miller – The Last Days of California

IMG_2530Jessica is on a journey across the country and possibly to eternal life with her religious fundamentalist parents and older sister Elise. They stop at Waffle Houses, Burger Kings and cheesy motels, handing out end-time pamphlets during the day and making out with boys at night.

The road trip is cramming the family together in a small car, everyone’s secrets included. Elise is pregnant, Jessica is questioning her faith and her parents are as mysterious as parents usually are to their teenage children. But have they left Montgomery, Alabama to witness the Second Coming of Jesus “in Pacific Time” like her parents told her or could it be that they have left because her father has lost his job (again) and her mother is unhappy? Even though they are all riding in the same car, everyone is on their own separate journey. Especially the sister struggle, not only with their relationship with each other but also with their individual problems. Thrown together they have to rely on each other, in ways that they wouldn’t have at home. And even though they might fight in the car, at night when the sneaking, the drinking and partying begins, they have each others back. But even though the novel depicts the bond of the two sisters, the story does mainly belong to Jessica and her first real encounters with boys. To her the quest to California is getting less and less about religion and more about becoming a woman. Following her on that road trip, to pick up trucks and bath rooms, were she has to make decisions that she might not be ready for I got reminded what it was like to be a teenage girl, experiencing love for the first time:

“It felt a little like love, though I’d never been in love and couldn’t say for sure what it was. I wondered if it would always feel like pain.”

What makes this novel so great is that it is never just funny or just emotional. Religious fundamentalism and moral questions are balanced out with Pop Culture, humour and teenage life:

“I searched for something to listen to on my iPod, scrolled through each of my playlists. Before leaving Montgomery, I’d made a Heaven mix and Elise had made an End of the World mix, but I was already tired of the songs I’d chosen. I decided on a mix called Jogging, though I never jogged. It hurt my knees.”

Not everything will get solved on this road trip. In ways the family has to come to terms with why they really left, and what it is that each of them is searching for. Does where they come from define where they will go?

When I picked up The Last Days of California reminded me a little of Mission to America by Walter Kirn. And yes, there were some similarities, the large quantities of junk food the characters ate and the isolation that sometimes comes with religious fundamentalism. But Miller showed a more emotional side of these topics and to me I felt like her characters were fare more realistic than in Mission to America.

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