In college one of my group of friends’ favorite things to do was lay out our plan for the zombie apocalypse over dinner at ‘rez’ (the residential cafeteria). As people graduated and the group adopted freshmen, we tweaked our plan and reassigned jobs based on each person’s strengths. I think it’s safe to say, not one of us believed we’d ever have to use the plan; it was simply a fun exercise. There’s something about my generation that prevents us from envisioning a future that isn’t somehow bleak (perhaps because we have grown up amidst global warming and seeing some of our nation’s longest overseas wars). My interest in a novel about a teenager who finds herself engrossed in a cult obsessed with bringing about the End of Days sprang from the same part of me that craves dystopic fiction and has a morbid fascination with war stories. The promising psychological conflict of the main character solidified my desire to read Alice LaPlante’s upcoming novel, Coming of Age at the End of Days. While the elements remain appealing, I’m not entirely sure what to make of the finished product.
Anna appears to be an average teenager growing up in a carefully planned community in California. But Anna wakes up one morning and everything has changed. She’s lost the will to do anything, falling into a crippling depression and her parents don’t know how to bring her out of it again. When the reclusive Goldschmidts move into the neighborhood and she meets their son, Lars, at the bus stop, the depression falls away and Anna finds a renewed sense of purpose in the faith to which they introduce her. Anna’s devotion to the cultish ministry that is eager to trigger the time of Tribulation at the End of Days, her parents are just as baffled unsure about how to approach their daughter as they were during her depression. But an unexpected tragedy causes Anna to question the faith that pulled her from the darkness once before and with help from some surprising sources, she reaches a balance of faith that carries her forward.
There are elements of Coming of Age at the End of Days that are remarkably well done. The depiction of depression is accurate in its bleakness. I feel it would have been more effective if Anna was established as a character with a personality before she is plunged into the depression that begins the story. I found her character difficult to sympathize with in part because there’s little sense of how she was during the Before she alludes to. Similarly, while it is in the nature of revelations to be sudden, there is not much time for the reader to catch up to Anna in terms of where her epiphanies take her.
There are probably some who would find the portrayal of the sect she joins problematic but I thought LaPlante did a wonderful job of showing that there are varying degrees of devotion in not just that kind of organization but in all faiths. There are some who go through the motions because it offers a structure and a sense of purpose that they lack otherwise. And then there are those who proclaim a calling – while some are no doubt genuine and true believers, I can’t help but feel some use it as an excuse to intimidate others, to justify their sense of importance, and persecute those who disagree with them. It’s a facet of humanity – not just religion – that LaPlante touches upon without going into too much detail, an opportunity I wish she’d taken.
So while there are parts of LaPlante’s novel that I appreciated, as a whole it felt a little too disjointed; there are incidents in the plot – particularly the novel’s ending – that feel too convenient. It doesn’t flow in a way that I found compelling or engaging. None of the relationships between Anna and the other characters feels complete in its portrayal – like there are aspects that are being purposely kept from the reader. They’re not flat relationships, but there’s a piece missing that keeps them from resonating. In fact, that’s how the whole novel feels; a well-constructed instrument that appears to be in tune but all I register is dissonance.
Coming of Age at the End of Days will be available for purchase August 4, 2015.