Wednesday, February 12, 2014
The Last Days of California - Mary Miller
Into every reading life, one supposes, a little "meh" must occasionally fall.
Jess and Elise (15 and 17) join their evangelical parents on a road trip from Montgomery, Alabama to California in order to get there in time for the Rapture. This set up was irresistible for me, and there were so many rave reviews I was sure it was a sure thing.
It didn't take too long for me to fall out of love with it, though, and here's why.
I found Jess' voice to be much younger than her 15 years, particularly given the current day setting of the novel. I just never bought in to her age, and thought throughout the novel that I would have felt more engaged by her had she been a precocious 13 year old.
While the parents in coming-of-age novels are quite often slightly stage left, when the entire novel is set on a road trip with close quarters a given, the parents in this one just cast weird shadows. Their heart isn't really in anything -- not their daughters, not their pilgrimage, and certainly not one another.
So many reviewers spoke of Miller's fresh Southern voice, or touted this as a fine contemporary Southern novel, but there is nothing even remotely Southern about it, save for names of locales. That's not a damnable offense, of course, because one doesn't have to write a Southern novel to be a novelist from the South... but when the buzz keeps throwing it at readers as a selling point it should live up to its own press. (That said, don't ask me to define a Southern novel. Like all art, you just know it when you see it.)
I kept reading because, apart from the constant dissonance I found between Jess' stated age and her voice, I identified strongly with her constant inner narrative. She's never content to be a passive observer to even the minutest things: she must always create a back story to every situation. It's not enough for her to have witnessed an accident, for instance... she is compelled to create scenarios under which all the parties involved were brought to that place, at that exact moment in time.
I was disappointed by this little novel, but there was quite enough promise therein to look forward to seeing what Ms. Miller does next.
My Surly Bottom Line: Finished it, found lots of lovely little things inside it, just not bowled over by any of it.
Liveright Publishing Corporation
A Division of W. W. Norton & Company