It’s no secret that Mississippi has produced a number of literary luminaries, whether we’re talking about William Faulkner or Eudora Welty or Larry Brown. Our rich literary history isn’t just history, though — new voices abound, which is both encouraging and exciting. For avid readers, discovering these new writers and being able to follow their careers is such a gift.
Mary Miller is one shining example of these new voices. She’s a Jackson, Mississippi native, and is currently the John and Renee Grisham Writer-in-Residence at Ole Miss, following her time as a Michener Fellow in fiction at the University of Texas.
In 2009, Miller published a collection of short stories called Big World, which I read and loved. I found her writing dark, funny and insightful. So, it was with great anticipation that I awaited the publication of her debut novel this past year. Luckily for readers everywhere, she didn’t disappoint.
Narrated by a 15-year-old girl named Jess, The Last Days of California is about a family vacation, a road trip across the country from Montgomery, Alabama, to California. In many ways, it’s exactly like the vacations many of us have taken in our lives, complete with the annoyances and frustrations most families feel when in the car together for days. The key difference, though, is that Jess’s evangelical father believes that the rapture is imminent, and so is taking his family to the West Coast to both witness it and to proselytize to people along the way. Jess’s big sister Elise, a couple of years older, looms large as everything Jess feels she’ll never be: beautiful, self-assured, outspoken, and rebellious. Jess’s mother is also along for the ride, quietly skeptical and a bit removed, but supportive of her husband nonetheless.
Miller’s writing here is incredibly detailed, capturing perfectly the landscape of the South as seen during a road trip, from the changing landscape as they move across Texas to the various snack foods Jess and her sister buy at each stop along the way. In Jess’s voice, Miller has created a character any of us could relate to, no matter how far removed from our teenage selves we are. She’s searching for answers, both big and small. She bounces easily from concerns about her religion and what she really believes to worries about her family’s stability to more usual 15-year-old thoughts about her weight and whether a boy will ever like her.
Poignant, relatable, and often funny, The Last Days of California is a standout book that I enjoyed reading. I’m already looking forward to what Miller does next.
— LouAnn Lofton
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