I was not much taken with this coming of age story. It takes place during a short family road trip in which two teenaged girls try to figure out who they should be while transiting through a world full of lies and hypocrisy (expressed most clearly by their parents, and reified further by their family road trip encounters with chain stores, unhealthy fast food products, Cosmopolitan Magazine, and the Bible).
Jessica (“Jess”) Metcalf is the 15-year-old narrator who is our Beatrice through this tour of Hell – or a “pilgrimage” according to her father – the goal of which is to get to California in time for the allegedly imminent Second Coming of Jesus. As they traverse the physically and spiritually desiccated landscape driving west from Alabama, they hand out religious pamphlets in order to help save more souls (but not too many, or they won’t be special).
The parents are so wrapped up in their own mesh of lies to themselves and others that they basically pay little attention to their daughters, unaware, for example, that Elise, the 17-year-old, is pregnant. Nor do they hardly ever notice when the girls pick up guys at their motel stops, experimenting with drinking and sex throughout the night. (The girls were made to attend a “purity” ceremony four years earlier, and the parents assumed the sex issue was therefore moot.)
This very dysfunctional family never quite makes it to California. The father, who has lost his job and has a gambling problem, stops at a casino/hotel in Phoenix instead. They miss the scheduled End of Days (which in any event, does not arrive), but at least the two daughters have bettered their relationship with one another.
Discussion: In terms of “coming of age,” nothing much happens for Jess except for being introduced to the world of sex with strangers. This actually – it seemed to me, only made matters worse for her, since she confesses she doesn’t know how to define herself if she isn’t “the good daughter” in contrast to Elise.
In spite of spending time in various rings of hell including encounters with boys intent on date rape, clerical sex abuse, and a fatal road accident they witness close up, in the end, no one has learned anything, and no one discusses anything. Issues such as the parents’ emotional problems, or what will happen to the life they have built around their supposed fundamentalist convictions- now shown to be riven with holes – are simply ignored. Jess’s ongoing obsession with her looks (“Boys liked it when you were starving”) goes unaddressed. These and other “weighty” issues are just thrown away like the detritus of the road trip, along with the empty M&M bags and Burger King wrappers.
Evaluation: While I wasn’t bowled over by this book, it has received some critical acclaim.
Published by Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company, 2014