Coming of Age at the End of Daysby Alice LaPlante
From New York Times bestselling author Alice LaPlante, a mesmerizing novel about faith, grief, and obsession as a complicated, passionate young woman falls in with a doomsday cult.
Alice LaPlante’s acclaimed psychological thrillers are distinguished by their stunning synthesis of family drama and engrossing suspense. Her new novel, Coming of Age at the End of Days, is an incisive foray deeper into the creases of family life—and the light-and-dark battle of faith—as LaPlante delves into the barbed psyche of a teenager whose misguided convictions bear irrevocable consequences.
Never one to conform, Anna always had trouble fitting in. Earnest and willful, as a young girl she quickly learned how to hide her quirks from her parents and friends. But when, at sixteen, a sudden melancholia takes hold of her life, she loses her sense of self and purpose. Then the Goldschmidts move in next door. They’re active members of a religious cult, and Anna is awestruck by both their son, Lars, and their fervent violent prophecies for the Tribulation at the End of Days. Within months, everything in Anna’s life—her family, her home, her very identity—will undergo profound changes. But when her newfound beliefs threaten to push her over the edge, she must find the strength to come back to center with the help of unlikely friends: Jim, a childhood crush wading through a quarter-life crisis in his parents’ basement, and Clara, her compassionate chemistry teacher desperate for adventure.
An intimate story of destruction and renewal, LaPlante delivers a haunting exploration of family legacies, devotion, and tangled relationships. She once again brilliantly parses an altered mind on the brink and considers the often perilous, always challenging journey to become the people we want to be at the end of our days.
“Tension and suspense are heightened through short chapters, terse matter-of-fact prose, and what is left unsaid.” —Library Journal
“Seductive.” —Vanity Fair
“The push and pull of relationships and complexity of unstable personalities create a compelling read. Tension and suspense are heightened through . . . terse, mater-of-fact prose, and what is left unsaid. . . . [This novel is] hard to put down.” —Library Journal
“LaPlante has a talent for depicting family dynamics and for making the environments her characters inhabit reflect their inner states.” —Booklist
“An electrifying and beautifully rendered page-turner, Coming of Age at the End of Days is a richly evocative look at what it means to find yourself in a world that can feel so hopelessly lost.” —Kimberly McCreight, New York Times bestselling author of Reconstructing Amelia
“LaPlante crafts prose that cuts to the quick and is the perfect vehicle for this dark tale. . . . A compelling read.” —Seattle Times
“Spare and trenchant, as if purified by fire. . . . [LaPlante’s] swift plot, combined with a few stunning twists, keep the story skipping along. . . . A crisp meditation on the deadly mixture of mental illness and religious charlatanism.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“[Coming of Age at the End of Days ] raises questions about mental fragility, vulnerability, and a variety of paths toward wholeness, many of which will find resonance among readers.” —Bookreporter
“LaPlante masterfully weaves a distressing plot in which complex, sympathetic characters, each with a complete and absorbing past, are brought to the brink of destruction . . . [a] brilliant, thought-provoking and memorable novel. It perfectly captures the dynamics of family relationships and friendships, loyalties and priorities, and the nuanced workings of an unusual mind.” —Shelf Awareness
Anna’s mother assigns her tasks. “You get the tomatoes and the potatoes, I’ll get the apples and lettuce.” She gives Anna $20, then hesitates, takes it out of Anna’s limp hand, and puts it in Anna’s front pocket for safety. She gives Anna a push and Anna wills her feet to move. She enters a stall piled high with potatoes. Small, large, oblong, misshapen, purple, grey, white. Other shoppers are picking up specimens, marveling at their color and quality and unusual shapes but Anna simply takes a plastic bag and dully begins filling it. Then it happens. That cruelest of all things. A flash of normality. This can occur. A glimpse of life as other people are experiencing it. For an instant the scene changes from sepia to full color, Anna is assaulted by the bright hues, the earthy smells, she feels the buzzing energy of the crowd.
Anna puts her hands on a pile of orange tinted potatoes, feels their coolness, their strange bumps and rough hollows. She holds one up to her cheek, sniffs it. And for a minute Anna thinks sheer willpower can do it, can vanquish the melancholia.
A simple mindset adjustment, a quick wrenching of perspective, and she could be out of misery and into the light. It is all her fault. She has simply been looking at things the wrong way round. The world really isn’t so sad, so dead. It has all been a terrible mistake. Hers. Then, just as suddenly, the vision passes. Back to sepia, back to pain, even more pain after such a moment of grace.
1. Reread the novel’s opening paragraphs describing Sunnyvale, California. Do you agree with the statement that there are “no secrets, no mysteries, in this suburban enclave” (p. 3)? Even if the neighbors live in close proximity, how aware are they of each other’s inner lives?
2. Against this canvas of normality, sixteen-year old Anna Franklin spirals into darkness, depression, and suicidal ideation. Look at LaPlante’s deft descriptions of the physicality of mental illness and talk about how Anna’s parents and friends react to her condition. Do they understand her? Why or why not?
3. Consider Anna’s psychiatrist’s diagnosis that Anna’s “problem” is due to “a simple misalignment with her herd” and the suggestion that Anna should “hunt with the pack” (p.18). Do you agree with this statement? Does Anna? Identify examples throughout the text of the invalidation of Anna’s illness, and discuss the ways that Anna reacts to it.
4. How sympathetic do you find Anna as a character? Identify ways in which her actions seem to alienate others, and consider how much of her behavior is within her control. Do you think she is aware of the way she makes others feel?
5. In the piercingly emotional scene on the golf course (pgs. 29–32), Anna’s mother asks her daughter if she will take her own life: “Oh, Annie, we’re not going to lose you, are we?” Discuss the growing gulf between Anna and her parents, their helplessness and vulnerability, and their inefficacy in coping with Anna’s turmoil. Did you feel that they could do more to help her, to reach her? Talk about your reactions to their parenting.
6. What are the consequences of her parents’ pursuit of their own passions? What does music represent for Anna’s mother, and how does it affect their relationship? Talk about Anna’s father’s obsession with earthquakes: What does he gain from his hobby, and how does it resonate with Anna?
7. When the Goldschmidt family moves in next door, Anna is immediately interested in them: “She understands that her world is now inexorably divided in two: before and after” (p. 44). Why is she so drawn to them? Later, when Anna and Lars miss the school bus, what endears him to Anna? What does he represent to her?
8. Anna’s fascination with death—”for I am passionately in love with death” (p. 32)—pervades the narrative. Would you consider the book as mostly dark in tone? Discuss the ways in which the author balances the book’s emotional intensity. Can you find instances of humor?
9. Anna is able to pull herself from the depths of depression through the help of the Goldschmidt’s religious fervor. Analyze her attraction to the Tribulation at the End Days. What does she mean when she says, “I burn to serve” (p. 58) on her first visit to Michael’s church?
10. Examine the ways in which faith is depicted in the novel. What does faith mean to Anna, to the Goldschmidts, to the other members of the congregation? How does it shape their understanding of themselves, of their world? Do they ever seem to doubt?
11. How does Anna’s exploration of faith parallel her father’s preoccupation with earthquakes? Consider this quote: “He is as enamored with the idea of widespread destruction as the bloodiest-minded members of Reverend Michael’s church . . . he delights in knowing he will be among the informed, among the prepared, among the surviving” (p. 119).
12. Discuss Anna’s visions of the Red Heifer. Why are the visions so important in terms of her personal development, and what role do they play in her faith? What is your understanding of the visions from a medical viewpoint?
13. While Anna’s coming-of-age is central to this novel, LaPlante has created other complex and memorable characters. What does Clara Thadeous mean to Anna? Chart Anna’s changing view of her Chemistry teacher throughout the story, as well as Clara’s evolution as a character.
14. Jim Fulson has fascinated Anna since childhood. What brings them together, enabling them to confide in one another? Talk about the ways in which LaPlante reveals their connection.
15. At the heart of the novel is an examination of the complexity of human character, the many ways that people can exist, and how little we understand each other and even ourselves. Find examples of secrets that the various characters keep–for example, Clara’s relationship with her mother—and then discuss the dichotomy between their true selves and the selves they choose to present to the world.
16. LaPlante writes with insight and sensitivity about mental disorder and depression. What do you think the metaphorical imprisonment of Jim Fulson in his parent’s basement says about society’s attitude toward mental illness and suicide?
17. In light of this quote, discuss the impact of Anna’s parents’ death: “Anna is suddenly overwhelmed with a sense of what she has lost. She reaches into the pocket and brings out a quarter. A talisman. Although a superstitious act and therefore against His will, she kisses the coin and is finally able to sleep” (p. 155).
18. At the beach, Anna nearly drowns—a baptism of sorts—and undergoes a sudden realization about the future. What changes take place following this incident? Consider the following quote: “Now she possesses a different attitude, the scene evokes her pity rather than her scorn, and she wants to beg for His mercy rather than His sword” (p. 214).
19. What do you think of the road trip that Anna, Clara, Jim, and Lars embark on? Does it add a level of suspense to the story? What were your expectations for their journey? Were you satisfied by the outcome?
20. The novel’s epilogue depicts Anna and Jim living happily together. Are you optimistic about their ability to maintain their love and their mental stability? How has Anna matured during the narrative? What do you hope for her future?
The Last Days of California — Mary Miller, The Girl who Slept with God — Val Brelinski, The Bell Jar — Sylvia Plath, Enduring Love — Ian McEwan