Book Review: Coming of Age at the End of Days, Alice LaPlante (2015)

August 5th, 2015 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

The Tribulations of Adolescence: A Character Study

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for sexual assault.)

Anna Franklin has never really fit in. A native of Sunnyvale, California, Anna was perhaps the least “sunny” kid in her subdivision. Socially awkward and unsure, she usually watched from the sidelines while the neighborhood children played tag. Her parents meant well, but failed to pay Anna enough attention, absorbed as they were – are – in their own interests: she, a pianist; he, an amateur scientist.

When Anna turns sixteen, things go from bad to worse as she’s caught in the bleak, gloomy grip of depression – or melancholia, in Anna’s parlance. Nothing can seem to shake its hold on her: not a psychiatrist (who Anna dislikes), not drugs (which Anna tosses), not her parents’ well-intentioned encouragements. Until, one night – in an effort to rekindle mother-daughter rituals of old – Anna’s mom institutes mandatory bedtime reading. Her first choice? The Bible. Not for any religious purposes, mind you – Anna’s parents are both atheists – but because it’s the basis for so much subsequent literature.

Yet something (read: the promise of death, violence, and retribution) in Revelations speaks to Anna. She discovers that she is “passionately in love with death.” Anna begins to have dreams – and then waking visions – of a red heifer. Anna’s overnight religious mania coincides with the arrival of the Goldschmidts, a weird family that seems mostly disengaged from the world (or at least Anna’s small slice of it). When Lars invites Anna to his church, she finds a ready and receptive outlet for her newly discovered fundamentalist fervor.

The Franklins’ guarded optimism about Anna’s recovery turns to frustration and anger as she preaches fire and brimstone at them, letting her grades slip and eschewing college so that she can join her Church and help prepare for – and even possibly hasten – the coming Tribulations and End of Days. But when death touches Anna in the most unexpected and intimate of ways, it more than quenches her thirst for it. With the first domino poised to fall, Anna must figure out how to save the world in lieu of destroying it.

Coming of Age at the End of Days is an odd little book. Mostly lacking in action, it’s really more of a character study: of a teenager on the cusp of adulthood, searching for purpose and meaning in a mostly dreary and mundane life. Anna’s religious conversion – similar in many ways to her father’s penchant for earthquakes – gives her all of this, and more: a way to not just persevere, but to shine. Through her visions and her involvement in Fred Wilson’s quest to breed a red heifer – one of just many steps on the path to the End of Days – Anna has a chance to be a hero. (In the eyes of a chosen few, anyhow.) Who among us hasn’t daydreamed of just that?

Yet in Anna’s science teacher, Clara Thadeous (“Ms. Tedious”), we see what often becomes of these childish dreams, what happens when they are thwarted. Teenage angst turned to adult discontent.

And her lover, Jim Fulson, offers a glimpse of what Anna might have become, had she not found an outlet for her ambition: intractable depression, multiple suicide attempts, moving back into your parents’ rec room, and becoming the neighborhood recluse, a topic of whispers and gossip.

The third person/past tense narration is weirdly dispassionate and detached. This put me off initially, but I soon found that it complemented Anna’s melancholia nicely. Once she “found god,” the tone felt strangely incongruous, but not always in a bad way; I felt like it helped underscore the intensity of Anna’s religious fervor.

LaPlante did a wonderful job of portraying Anna and Jim’s depression. As someone who’s struggled with depression my entire life, I found myself nodding time and again. Especially heartbreaking are Anna’s parents’ futile attempts to help her. I didn’t give it much thought when I was younger, but now – and especially when I read books featuring teenagers with depressive and/or anxiety disorders similar to my own – I consider how my illness must have affected my parents. I felt my heart crack a little upon this exchange between Anna and her mom: “Oh Annie…Do you see any way out of this?”

I’m still not 100% sure how I feel about the entirety of the book, though. This is my first Alice LaPlante book, and it definitely doesn’t fit into her usual “psychological thriller” niche. It’s a slow, understated book, and probably not for everyone. It took me a while to get into it, and then LaPlante lost me again when the grown-ups decided to take the kids on a road trip. Sure, I guess it works for the allegory of the story, but it’s hardly the most realistic plot twist.

Also, the ending is downright anticlimactic (doubly so given that a natural disaster is involved); definitely not the payoff I was hoping for/expecting given the slow buildup.

3.5 stars, rounded down to 3 where necessary. Coming of Age at the End of Days isn’t entirely to my taste, but it’s not “bad,” either. I’d recommend this to those interested in books about religion, particularly fringe religions/cults, and with a YA angle.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: In the mental health arena, yes. Anna suffers from depression and also has delusions and seizures. Neighbor Jim Fulson is also clinically depressed, and has tried to kill himself several times. Anna’s mother’s friend Martha is a breast cancer survivor. By story’s end, Anna is an orphan, both her parents having died in a car accident. Clara’s father died of prostate cancer, for which his Christian Scientist wife forbade him from seeking treatment. Anna’s parents are both atheists. Her father is a recovering alcoholic.

Animal-friendly elements: Quite the opposite. Fred Wilson is working on breeding a red heifer to help hasten the End of Days. When Anna visits his farm, she sees the cows and thinks of them as dull but content – never mind the constant forced impregnation and theft of their babies.

In fact, there’s this ridiculously ironic little bit wherein Wilson describes how his wife became involved with pro-life activism:

“It’s funny, she got that from helping here, seeing the embryos so small. ‘We think of them as cows already,’ she saud. ‘Why don’t we think of them as people?'”

So cow embryos are precious enough to justify you harassing human women, but not enough to, you know, stop imprisoning, murdering, and consuming their mothers and fathers? Got it.

 

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