It’s hard to convince a thirty-something woman to willingly revisit the teenage experience, even another girl’s story and especially with the added complexity of today’s technology. A thirty-something woman knows too well what awaits her in those pages—self-doubt, self-wonder, and lack of foresight to start; the fine balance between limitless possibility and assured impossibility; the question of sexual attractiveness; smart phones. (Thank goodness those weren’t an option in 1996.) But despite whatever implications a coming-of-age story might suggest, veteran short story writer Mary Miller has managed to portray hers in a way that is pleasantly prickly and not at all expected, in this thirty-something’s opinion. In her debut novel, The Last Days of California (Norton/Liveright, January), Miller delivers a succinct, page-turning tour of two teenage sisters’ modern-American plights.
The two sisters, 17-year-old Elise and 15-year-old Jessica, couldn’t be more different. One is careless and inordinately beautiful; the other is inward-looking but outwardly unremarkable. They’re forced to take a literal road trip through the Southwest with their Evangelical parents, who drag them toward the ever-approaching apocalypse on a mock-family vacation. Circumstantially, the girls’ parents naturally just don’t understand much about the content and quality of their lives, and the family is essentially poor. Both are facts to which the girls have resigned themselves with relatively little complaint.
As the family chugs along from motel to motel and state line to state line, the sisters must simultaneously traverse the desert, plains, and mountainous terrain of their teenaged lives, forging some kind of sisterly pact with one another and ultimately with the world at large. All of this must happen without their parents noticing what’s happening in the car’s backseat; in the gas station parking lot; in the motel pool at twilight; with the many individuals they meet along the way. In this way, Miller cleverly uses the everyday as obstacles to the girls’ happiness and well-being, as well as to their on-time arrival at the rapture, weaving a narrative steeped in emotional complexity and tempered by absolute absurdity in a smart, spare prose style.
The Last Days of California is replete with all of today’s teenage accoutrement. The sisters must contend with the romantic (or potentially romantic) relationships via text messages or lack thereof. They lament their inadequate selection of channels on television. They endure the more embarrassing characteristics of their parents, such as the Jesus t-shirts they’re required to wear for the trip. McDonald’s restaurants occasionally form the backdrop for action, while roadside attractions become eloquent metaphors for cultural, regional, and spiritual transformation and decay. These talismans of modern Americana are everywhere in Miller’s novel, and it’s no accident. They recapitulate a faith abstracted. They are the protrusions of a redacted Southwestern landscape. Through these images, Miller illuminates extraordinarily ordinary lives and small patches of dirt studded with cacti that devastate. Faith, while omnipresent in the narrative, plays second fiddle to the burgeoning self-identity of the sisters and what comes of their interactions with each new landscape.
Jessica, the book’s protagonist and a wonderfully contemplative observer, is our road trip guide. She brings perfect light and perfect dark to a fragile America that’s neither dark nor light, but simply is. Jessica is our lens along the stretch of road Miller has laid for us. While her view is by no means panoramic, her gaze is wide enough to allow small transcendences; we see glimpses of her move toward self-acceptance, glimpses of her inching toward an emotional and social contract with her family, and with the world that’s moving quickly past her backseat window.
Of her parents, Jessica says, “I couldn’t imagine them snorkeling and exploring the beaches, driving around in a rented jeep with the top down. It made me love them more because I knew the day would come when I would also be unrecognizable to myself.”
It’s often in these brief passages of enlightenment that the reader feels the full punch of Miller’s prose. In this particularly astute passage, Jessica considers her parents before they were parents, and hints at change both immediate and far off. Through Jessica, Miller leans in against readers’ hearts and minds, deftly tethering them to this unmiraculous yet endearing family for the length of their cross-country trip. Faith and rapture aside, Miller’s re-visioning of the coming of age story is a timely and welcome one.
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