The Last Days of California by Mary Miller c. 2014 (233 pages—Liveright Publishing)

A first-person story (from the perspective of Jessica, the youngest daughter) about a family’s road trip from Alabama to California. Jess’s father, an unemployed conservative who parrots many irrational viewpoints, hopes his family will arrive in California in time for the Rapture. During this trip, Jess’s older sister, Elise, conceals a pregnancy from her parents, while Jess wrestles with her own sexuality and faith.

Sentences Worth Studying

  • “We had just seen a man die. A man who had been alive only moments before, thinking about nothing or nearly nothing—wondering whether it was too early to have a drink, or if he might go for a swim this evening—things that were so inconsequential they were an insult to life. He hadn’t had a moment to prepare, would take all of his secrets with him” (29).
  • “‘I hate traveling,’ [Elise] said. ‘People think it’s so fun to be uncomfortable but it’s not fun. I’m not feeling challenged. I’m not learning’ / ‘Who thinks it’s fun to be uncomfortable?’ / ‘Oh you know, traveler types.’” (97).
  • “As the trip had been over a month away, I agreed easily. It was easy to agree to things when nothing was required of me at the moment, or in the very near future. I regretted it later, of course, when getting out of the thing I had agreed to was much more difficult than not having agreed to it in the first place . . .” (107).
  • “They [Elise and her boyfriend] spent the next half-hour texting. I wanted to text someone but no one was expecting to hear from me. I had friends, but they were mostly school or church friends. We didn’t play with each other’s hair or tell each other our deepest secrets. It wasn’t at all what I’d thought junior high friends would be like—I thought we’d be sleeping in the same bed, shopping for clothes. I thought we’d tell each other everything. I knew it was my own fault. When someone lightly touched my arm or my leg while we were talking, I flinched. I didn’t know how I could want things so badly while making it impossible to ever get them” (109).
  • “I picked up an empty popcorn bag and stuffed candy and gum wrappers into it, passed it up. My mother took it and held it. It would be no fun being a mother, everybody handing you their garbage and wanting things all the time, nobody to tell your problems to. She could never say anything bad about our family. She could only talk about people’s problems as a way of talking about her own” (162).
  • Jess to her sister: “‘How do you know everything?’ / ‘I make stuff up a lot,’ she said. ‘People don’t question it if you act like you know what you’re talking about.’” (207).
  • “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” (213).
  • Jess after losing her virginity: “She [Elise] didn’t say anything. I sat there for a moment, looking at her, and then took off my clothes and got in, waited for the water to fill up around me. I ducked my head under and held my breath, my ring scraping the porcelain—God was supposed to be my husband. I was supposed to be married to God. I imagined slicing my wrists open, red against white. It would be so bright, so beautiful. I could hear my heartbeat and remembered that it only had so many. It seemed cruel, putting a little bomb inside us like this, something that we had to always find new ways to ignore” (215).
  • “I looked at my mother, smiling at her phone. I wanted to go to her, curl up in her arms. I missed her and wanted to tell her I missed her. At home, we shared bowls of popcorn, sat close to each other on the couch to watch movies. When we finished eating, we’d scratch each other’s backs. I want to put you in my pocket, she’d say, so I can pull you out whenever I want. I would imagine myself small, pocket-sized, nestled against the warmth of her leg. I was afraid she would die without knowing how much I loved her, and it made me want to tell her things, let her get to know me, but I didn’t think she’d be able to love me if she knew me” (225).
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About Kelsey Maki

writer and English professor
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