Before I get into this review, I should preface by saying I read Mary Miller’s The Last Days of California during my residency in Nebraska, when long days of working on my own novel left me seriously desiring some kind of literary escape, a world or characters I could totally wrap myself in. Something that would be engaging enough to not allow my mind to wander to that hasty decision to change a sentence in section six of my novel, or the rewording of a paragraph in the opening chapter. I probably should have reread the first Harry Potter book, given my needs. But instead I chose Mary Miller, which may have informed a bias opinion on why I did not love the book. That said, let’s get into it.
The Last Days of California is a story of an evangelical Christian family from Alabama who are on a road trip to California, where they want to be when the end of the world occurs. The story is told from the point of view of Jess, the fifteen year old daughter in the family of four. Jess battles the same inconsistencies of identity and apprehension about herself as most fifteen-year-olds do, but hers seems comparably worse given the beliefs she’s been passed on by her parents and her need to constantly ask strangers if they’ve been “saved.” Jess’s older sister, Elise, is, in Jess’s view, prettier, smarter, and savvier than she. Elise is also indifferent to the idea of the world ending and pregnant by a boy from her hometown whom she is casually dating. Jess is the only other person in the family who knows this. A fear-mongering religious father and an exhausted (and possibly non believing) mother round out the rest of the main characters that make up the story. The woman in the story feel much more realized than the father, who often comes across in fuzzy detail like a caricature.
Given the premise, it seems natural that there would be many pages with very little action. And of this, there are lots. At the story’s beginning, the family has already commenced the road trip from Alabama to California, so we aren’t even provided with much in the way of home setting. We spend all of our time in Jess’s worried, questioning head, which, as far as the consistency with what I recall of being fifteen, Miller does a great job of. But this leads to the problem: we’re stuck in a fifteen year old’s head. There are keen observations and a few sharp lines of which Miller is known for in her short stories, when the lack of action is perhaps the point, but this did not translate into a longer narrative. In fact, the many pages of nothing served only to dilute those sharp moments.
The story felt, on the whole, like one of Miller’s short stories, but with pages and pages of mostly nothing filler in between. Which is a shame. At one point the family is witness to a very serious car accident that leaves a man dead, but it felt so out of place that it was clear Miller needed some kind of action to fill the many pages of repetitive driving scenes. The scenes where the family has stopped in a hotel along the way were more clearly felt, but there were still moments of boredom. During one such scene near the end, Jess, questioning her beliefs, calls her church’s minister to talk to him on the phone, and he asks her in no uncertain terms to tell him her how she “violates herself.” It won for its creepy factor, if that was the goal, but again felt like something thrown in, not doing much to highlight or change anyone’s view on the narrative of men in powerful positions within the structure of a church. However, during this scene, Jess observes the sound of clinking of ice in a glass through the phone and imagines him at home with his family, caring for his disabled child. In other words, a moment where Miller brings me back to why I love her writing in the first place.
The best scenes are when Jess’s hyper-awareness comes through. Lines like, “Most of the gas stations were attached to something now. In Louisiana, we’d stopped at one attached to a tanning salon and Elise had tanned, cooking the baby while the rest of us ate shrimp po boys.” Or, when observing her father’s driving, “He did his usual back-up-without-looking routine and it made me want him to crash even though it would be a lot of trouble for all of us and I might even get hurt in the ordeal. I still wanted him to crash. It would be his fault. He would try to blame it on us, but we would all know it was on him and he would feel terrible about it.”
When, towards the end of the story, Jess loses her virginity in a hotel bathroom while a party of teenagers continues just outside the door, she observes just after the boy dumps the condom in the trash and leaves the bathroom, “I sat on the toilet and listened to them talk and laugh, knowing I would never be a part of it. I would always be separate, thinking about what expression my face was making, what people thought of me. Observing peoples’ weaknesses and flaws–their big thighs and crooked teeth and acne, their lack of confidence, their fear. I would always think the worst about people and it would keep me from them because I couldn’t accept myself.”
Sentences like these are why I desperately wanted this novel to be better than it was. Unfortunately, they’re just too few and far between in the greater narrative to make a decent story.