The Last Days of California by Mary Miller
“As you have undoubtedly noticed in your careers as my parents, I am a homebody of the highest order. I don’t enjoy traveling,” I recently wrote to my parents in an e-mail. (I was outlining Operation New York and trying to differentiate my homing instinct from their wanderlust.) I know I don’t like to travel (oh, how silly that I feel like I have to validate my own likes and dislikes!) because I’m an anxious introvert whose calm depends on repetition and routine, and because I’ve been privileged enough to do so. I’ll never be sure how much (between my shoddy memory and utter disinclination to fact-check with my family), but, over the years, it’s knit itself into one contiguous memory of waiting.
I’ve said before that I don’t like talking about it, because it can come off as privileged whining. But that verbal isolation means that I’ve always thought of it as something unique. So imagine my surprise when I opened up The Last Days of California to encounter a girl much like myself in much the same scenario. Jess and her family are traveling from Alabama to California for the Rapture, at her father’s behest. Unknown to her parents, her beloved sister, Elise, is pregnant. And that’s basically it. It does sound a bit like a joke about “literary fiction” (for more on how I despise this phrase, please refer back to college Clare), but it really is that internal.
And what better subject for internality than an adolescent in transit? Adolescence, like childhood, is almost inherently devoid of agency, but it’s only in adolescence that you realize what this means. You want the world, but you can’t have it—not only are your parents rightfully not willing to give it to you, but you’re not ready. So you construct that world in your head, that fantasy world of what you’ll do one day when you’re on your own. (Luckily, since my experience of the world was so circumscribed, all of my adolescent fantasies were basically impossible, letting me live my adult life in peace. You win some, you lose some.) And if you’re traveling while all of that is going on, your world, despite its expanding horizons, can shrink down to the tips of your fingertips, the painful twist across your lower belly, and the the chapped skin on your lips.
If you’re already an overthinker like Jess, that internal world, bounded by your own flesh, subsumes the world around you. Jess stumbles into her first sexual experience on the road and tries to force herself to stay in the moment, so that she can remember it. She’s fascinated by the world, but it also scares her; she laments that she lacks the close friendships she thought she’d have at fifteen, but knows that it’s because she’s terrified of people. So she ends up a witness, pure and simple, to the various strangers they meet on their journey, to her parents, and to her own internal mechanisms.
But largely, Jess witnesses Elise, the one person she’s not scared of. (Well, she’s not scared of her parents, but they’re objects of pity and occasional love for her.) The blurb I was given boasts of the novel dealing with the sexual rivalry between the sisters (blech), but Jess and Elise love each other in an instinctual, quiet way, without anyone ever getting between them. Jess entertains a daydream where Elise gives birth to a boy and they take care of it. Elise watches out for Jess as they meet men on their travels. When a older man leers at Elise, Jess wishes that she could kill every creep on the planet so that Elise could be beautiful without it ever hurting her. They’re callous and cruel with each other—Jess’ body politics are warped and Elise can and will shame her—but they’re family.
And with that point made, the novel just sort of… ends. The religion factor never really comes into play, beyond a motivator to get Jess’ family on the road. Jess and Elise went through a purity ball, but they haven’t seemed to have internalized much of it. (Oddly, it’s pointed out that they lack Southern accents, because I guess we wouldn’t care about them if they sounded like that? I have no idea what that’s supposed to denote.) I thought, momentarily, that Miller might have it end with the actual Rapture, just because, but they just sort of sheepishly turn around. Miller definitely has the adolescent voice down, but the story itself could have a bit more shape for her to hang more emotions on.
Bottom line: Mary Miller’s debut novel nails the adolescent voice, down to that fantasy world inside of you that threatened to keep you from the real world. The relationship between the sisters is nicely rounded, but it just sort of… ends. If you’d like.
This book was made available to me for publicity purposes.