Over the last few years, more and more Americans have started listening to—and following—the gospel of Beaton Frick. He preaches that Americans are the Chosen people, but that God is angry with them. That school shootings, natural disasters, wars, the economic downturn, 9/11, all of these things are happening because people aren't devout enough. Frick makes so much sense to so many people that there is an enormous cultural shift: People pull their children out of schools, only buy Church of America products, shun Non-Believers.
When Frick predicts the Rapture and the Apocalypse, everything ramps up even further and faster.
Before Vivian Apple refused to join the Church, she was the most eager-to-please daughter you could imagine: she got good grades, she said no to drugs, she never stayed out late. Now, she spends most of her time with Harpreet Janda and her brother Raj, two other teenagers who've been essentially orphaned by the Church—Harp's wildness and Raj's sexual orientation make them personae non gratae at home—and while it's been a hard time for all of them, they assume that the world will go back to normal once the date of the Rapture passes by and no one gets, you know, RAPTURED.
The morning after their Rapture's Eve party—Harp wanted a Bacchanalian orgy, but it was a bit more sedate than that—Vivian walks into her house... and discovers her parents gone, and two parent-sized holes in the roof.
Vivian Apple at the End of the World is a road trip through a dangerous—though not entirely unfamiliar, as it's very easy to see the parallels between Vivian's world and the darker aspects of our own—America. It's a world in which everyone is suspicious of everyone else; in which those in the majority take pleasure in stepping on those in the minority; in which education, feminism, and any sexual orientation other than straight is seen as a sin; in which fear and hatred rule, and perceived sins are often met with violence.
But it's also a world that teaches you—and quickly—who your real friends are, who your true family is, and what you're capable of. It's a world that inspires you to take action—after all, if Frick was right about the Rapture, he might be right about the world ending in a few months, too. For some people, like Harp, that leads to a loss of confidence, to fear and to uncertainty. For others, like Vivian, that leads to a desire to be bold, to take action, to "become the hero of her own story":
I don't know what these things mean. I don't know if I'll find out. All I know is that I can't stay in this place any longer. I grab my suitcase and slip a ring off keys off the hook right by the apartment's front door. I take the elevator into the basement, where the car Grandpa Grant bought off the grieving woman is parked. This is car theft. This is running away. This is some punk-rock New Orphans shit. This is not like any Vivian Apple I have ever been before. But this is Vivian Apple at the end of the world.
Frick's teachings are in line with a lot of what we see from the Westboro Baptist Church, with bonus extreme patriotism—Thomas Jefferson is regarded as a prophet; Mount Rushmore is a holy place—and consumerism (think Repo Man, but Church of America-brand instead of generic). It's a version of Christianity that celebrates consumerism and preaches hate, and by the middle of the book, Vivian's feelings about religion are understandably black-and-white. Coyle avoids letting the BOOK come off that way, though, in part due to this passage, when Vivian gets an earful from a woman she greatly respects:
"We could sit here and have an in-depth discussion about why I believe the things I believe in, about the kind of comfort and guidance I've taken from my faith throughout my life, but it wouldn't matter to you one iota, Viv, because you don't believe. And that's okay! It's not up to me to tell you what you should believe in. That's the thing you've got to figure out for yourself. But let me tell you this: you can't go through life distinguishing the Believers from the non-Believers and divvying up your love and trust accordingly. It's more complicated than that, Viv, and you know it. Don't be the kind of person who sees groups instead of people."
It's an angry story—Vivian has a lot to be angry about, in terms of her own personal journey and in terms of what her world has become—and again, with the parallels to our own world, at moments, it certainly gave me the I AM GETTING PARANOID Handmaid's Tale wiggins. But. But it's also a story about growth and forgiveness and truth; friendship and sacrifice and creating family and celebrating happiness; about living for each moment while also thinking about the future.
And despite the anger and the darkness of some of the events the girls survive, there's a surprising amount of humor in the book. Their interactions—ESPECIALLY Harp, in regards to the growing attraction/attachment between Vivian and another fellow road-tripper—are warm, caring, and sometimes joyful and laugh-out-loud funny. They depend on one another, believe in each other, help the other if she falls; they're willing to follow each other to the end (depending on who's feeling capable of leading), to forgive one another, or, if it's the right thing to do, to let the other go. It finishes on an open-ended note, but a satisfying one... and I was about to say that I hoped it would be a stand-alone—there's something about road-trip books that makes me crave open-ending endings, where the characters just keep on going into the distance—but I just poked around, and it looks like there's going to be a sequel.