Last Day by Domenica Ruta tells the fictional story of several characters and how they spent a holiday known as The Last Day, “an oddity on the calendar” described as slightly more than one day, but not quite two that began at some point on May 27 and ended on May 28. Ruta writes that the parameters of the day were entirely personal. Some celebrate with backyard barbeques or private parties, others come together in community festivities. The narrative traces the parallel lives of several people on The Last Day. The characters we meet embark on quests to reconcile their pasts, reconnect, make amends and find meaning.
High schooler Sarah Moss finds it hard “to make plans for a day that you secretly considered to be your last.” She decides to skip out on her parents’ annual pizza party in search of her crush, a middle-aged tattoo artist named Kurt she met at the same party exactly one year prior. Too jaded, cynical and analytical for her own good, Sarah struggles to reconcile her feelings with Kurt, who simultaneously sets out to make peace with his past.
We also meet Karen Donovan who “belonged to a different caste of crazy. Heavily medicated and monitored by a slew of social workers.” Karen is a social outcast, probably on the autistic spectrum and bipolar with a tragic childhood and only one friend, Rosette, an immigrant from the Azores and elderly caregiver. “Rosette didn’t know Karen’s whole story, but she could tell the girl had been raped at least once, probably more. Karen bore the unmistakable stain of sexual trauma.” Early in the novel, Karen shares a portentous thought with Rosette asking her how she thinks the world will end: “we will melt or explode or crumble or what?” After losing her job and subsequently her room in a group home, Karen sets out to find Dennis, who once lived with Karen and shares their childhood trauma of abuse.
The third narrative thread traces the emotional trajectory of Thomas “Bear” Clark, an astronaut on the International Space Station floating above the earth on The Last Day. He is accompanied on his space mission by a rich Japanese space tourist Yui and a Russian cosmonaut, Svec. Bear is the golden boy immune to dark moods, “from a distance, his whole life glittered with the charm of the elect,” yet on earth, Bear is suffering an existential crisis. Accused of hiding behind his work and being an absent father and husband by his ex-wife, and despite all of his professional accomplishments, Bear struggles to find meaning in his life.
Other minor characters weave in and out of this story, leaving me to wonder why they appeared in the first place.
The narrative felt at times discombobulated as chapters bounced back and forth between the lives of characters in real time on The Last Day. As for the plot, it’s hard for me to pin down, other than an exploration into how the human psyche deals with the end of life as we know it. The novel is peppered with rich anecdotes and history about The Last Day enabling me to suspend my disbelief and buy into it as a real event. If I were to analyze the meta-message, I would say Last Day is about the quest for human connection and meaning. The author writes with a subtext that belies her understanding of human nature—how “Hate had lust at its core, a dark quicksand of desire…” or “Women will say absolutely anything to justify their sexual selections.” Her prose is graphic and sensory-rich such as the author’s description of Sarah’s evolving psyche: “a place where all the inventions of her childhood, her desires and opinions
Last Day teases out secrets, forces people to confront their pasts and reveals that people are fundamentally unknowable. The holiday ends with a great hush, sixty seconds of silence as the lights go out and people sit in complete darkness. Will dawn bring a new day, new beginnings or is May 27th the last opportunity for humanity to self correct its course? I encourage you to read on and find out.