REVIEW: The Last Days of California by Mary Miller

Our perceived possibilities of the world change as we age. In high school, the future seems at once immediate and infinitely far. In middle school, the effect is even greater, when a friend’s white lie may seem monumental betrayal, and a bad day may seem the end of the world. If we keep moving backward, however, back to childhood, we find we could look at the future like an everyday Halloween.

Life was a choice between costumes: ballerina tutus and firefighter helmets and superhero capes.

We could be these things. We would be these things.

But there are rules to the world, and growing up is a slow discovering of these rules. Pessimistically, we could say that adolescence is the gradual removal and locking-away of our childhood costumes. At age five we learn we will not fly like speeding bullets because, well, we cannot fly. At age nine we realize we will be too tall to be a ballerina. At fifteen we are cut from the basketball team and realize we’ll never be taller than five foot five; we will not be professional athletes.

Inevitably, we end up becoming the sum of whatever’s left; we become the costume we’ve refused to let the world take from us. And what literature does, when it’s done right, is give us back the life potential lives we could have lived. We can be superheroes, ballerinas, firefighters. At least in the pages of a book.

*

The Last Days of California, is a coming-of-age tale, a story of growing up and finding one’s place in the world.

Struggling to find your place in the world can feel like the world is ending. But in <a href=”http://recommendedreading.tumblr.com/post/69684589247/pearl-by-mary-miler-recommended-by-hobart" target=”_blank”>Mary Miller</a>’s debut novel, it actually is.

Jess is our hero, the fifteen-year-old youngest daughter in an evangelical family on a road trip to California. The rapture is happening in three days, and Jess’s father wants the family to be there to see it. He’s even had t-shirts made as if for a concert tour. Aside from the impending end of the world, Jess’s world is instantly recognizable and relatable. Her father embarrasses her. Her mother is nice, but doesn’t entirely “get” her. Her older sister, Elise, is beyond beautiful, beyond skinny, a domineering older sibling if there ever was one. Jess and Elise are never far from their phones and iPods, Twitter and text messages. They listen to Taylor Swift and “Heaven” playlists. Elise loves Anderson Cooper. They meet boys and sneak alcohol. They test the rules the world enforces upon them by trying on costume after costume, trying to find what will fit, what kind of person they will — or want — to be, before it’s too late.

In many ways, Jess’s evolving relationship to the world is reflected by her relationship with her older sister. Elise’s beauty and maturity open up far more opportunities for her in the world. Whether they’re are good or bad, Jess wants what Elise already has. When Elise goes missing one night, escaping to a bar and disappearing with an older man, her mother asks Jess to pray with her:

“She took my hands, bowed her head, and closed her eyes. She asked for His protection and compassion and guidance. She asked Him to watch over us and keep us safe…’Elise is too beautiful and naïve, Lord,’ she said, and then she squeezed my hands once hard before releasing them. I wanted to be too beautiful and naïve. No one would ever apologize for me because I was too beautiful and naïve.”

It’s not a profoundly unique feeling, to be jealous of an older sibling.

A sad irony of the world is that our desire to be special is not special at all.

But through Jess, Miller continually confronts us with an honest array of thoughts and desires. These are thoughts all of us had growing up, when we looked at someone more beautiful than ourselves and wanted to be them.

No one is proud of jealousy. No one is immune, either.

*

Miller’s 2009 story collection, Big World, was notable for its language and memorable characters. In tiny moments, sticky sentences, Miller could convey the enormity of a relationship between two people. The beginning of “Leak,” for example, gives away nothing and everything all at once: “There’s a leak, I told him, it’s right over my bed. He didn’t believe me. I was a girl.”

Part of the joy of <em>The Last Days of California</em> is getting to inhabit one of Miller’s characters for the duration of an entire novel

, and find within it moment after moment just like this, sentence after sentence of insightful universality. One of my favorites shows us our gradual discovery of existentialism in a single paragraph:

“The road narrowed into one lane for roadwork and my father bumped an orange cone; it wobbled but didn’t go down. 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 I got the spacy out-of-body feeling I got sometimes, like I wasn’t real, like nothing was real so nothing mattered. We could drive off a cliff and I wouldn’t care. And then the feeling was gone and I was back inside my body. I turned my hands palm-up and slowly moved my fingers, thinking, There are your hands. You are moving your hands. Sometimes I found this incredible, but now it just seemed dumb. Of course they were my hands. Of course I could move them.”

Miller does take a risk by placing the reader in Jess’s mind for so long, because while the majority of Jess’s observations and thoughts are recognizable, relatable, even profound, they can sometimes feel as if reaching too hard for profundity, even labeling it as such at moments: “This struck me as hugely profound — love one another.” In these occasional moments, the desired affect feels less insightful than it does melodramatic. But these moments are few and far between; in between, there is a great deal to be celebrated.

The Last Days of California is a triumphant addition to the long tradition of coming-of-age stories, showing us that even those who seem to be nothing like us — be they ballerinas, superheroes, or teenage daughters of fundamentalist Christians — they really are more like us than we know. So there is a great pleasure in recognizing yourself in a book as beautifully written as this. Miller’s novel shows us that the world ends and begins anew each day; every new morning is a rapture, a chance to be something different, the same as every new page.

Thank God.

The Last Days of California

by Mary Miller

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