Book talk: “The Ruins of California”

The Ruins of California by Martha Sherrill

The Ruins of California

Martha Sherrill

Riverhead Trade (paperback) (ISBN 1594482314 / 9781594482311)

Fiction, 384 pages

First Sentence: “Two things always signaled that she was suffering: stage makeup worn during the day and loudness.”

Book Description: According to the precocious Inez, life for the Ruin family in 1970s California is complex. Her father, Paul, is self-obsessed, intrusive, opinionated, and profligate, but also brilliant, adoring, magnetic, and liberating. Unable and unwilling to sustain a monogamous relationship, he’s divorced from Inez’s mother, Connie, and claims that he will never marry again, since “marriage is a bad deal for everyone — particularly women.” His intriguing personality and movie-star good looks draw women to him. Inez bears constant witness to the never-ending string of girlfriends that her father loves and then leaves.

Inez is in constant flux between two worlds — one represented by her mother, Connie, an ex-star flamenco dancer, and Connie’s mother, Abuelita, a Peruvian immigrant who works devotedly as a housekeeper for a recording-industry executive. The other holds Paul’s mother — old-money grandmother Ruin, who invites Inez for horse-riding outings and tea parties that are really lessons in refinement. Shuttled back and forth between an innocent, sedate life with Connie and Abuelita in the L.A. suburbs to premature, though thrilling, extravagances with her father in San Francisco, Inez attempts to find a home that is somewhere between the extremes.

As Inez progresses through high school, we are witness to the preoccupations of the era’s typical Californians: drugs, sex, art, surfing, love beads, Nixon, motorcycles. Inez encounters them all in her climb toward maturity, culminating in a trip to Hawaii, where she slides perilously into a drugged oblivion. She makes it out in time, but her beloved half brother is not so lucky — and Inez grows more than she thought possible as she patiently, with love and determination, saves her brother and finds herself.

Comments: Being of that vintage myself, I’m particularly drawn to stories about growing up during the 1970’s, and in The Ruins of California, Martha Sherrill tells a fascinating – ad as it turns out, highly autobiographical – one, having found that her proposed memoir about her father rang truer as a novel.

The title is a play on words, telling the story of the Ruin family during the years following the dislocating events of the 1960’s when much of society itself seemed to be in ruins, and California’s reputation for being the leading edge of rule-breaking loose living and general oddity was being honed. California itself plays an important role, in locations both real (the SF Bay area, Lagune Beach) and thinly disguised (suburban Van Dale=Glendale, moneyed, staid San Benito=San Marino, the bohemian, bucolic Ojala Valley=Ojai).

Inez Ruin is the child of what was then described as a “broken home,” living with her mother Connie and immigrant grandmother in the LA suburb of Van Dale, but making regular visits to her brilliant, twice-divorced, mercurial father Paul in San Francisco and developing relationships with Paul’s mother, wealthy San Benito widow Marguerite, and his son from his first marriage, Whitman, as she grows into her adolescence. The heart of the story is in Inez’ relationships with these two men, though, and it is particularly a father-daughter story.

I loved the writing here. The story is told through Inez’ first-person narration, and her voice is honest and convincing. The period descriptions and details sound and feel right. It’s a growing-up story, which by its nature makes it more episodic than plot-driven, but it’s the character development that really carries things along.

After the beginning, it feels like not much attention is given to Inez’ relationship with her mother, and that bothered me until I sorted out that it’s really not their story; following her divorce from Paul, Connie moved on from the Ruins, but Inez remains one, and so the focus here is on that side of her family – the not-everyday, complicated, come-and-go Ruins. Her grandmother Marguerite introduces her to horses and the rituals of a traditional county-club society that already seems to be out of date, but that isn’t quite as fascinating as her laid-back half-brother Whitman’s unrooted surfer lifestyle, and her father Paul overshadows them all. He’s a contradictory combination of brilliance and interpersonal obtuseness, generosity and self-absorption, strongly attractive (and attracted) to women while never fully investing, art and technology, and parenting habits that swing between devoted and inappropriate. It’s impressive that Inez comes through it all eventually with perspective and maturity, but there’s no question that her father is an endlessly intriguing character – to her, as well as to the reader.

I took a liking to this book very quickly, and it didn’t let me go. I found it to be an absorbing, relatively quick read; in fact, I wouldn’t have minded if it were longer. The Ruins of California may not be the most lovable family I’ve ever met, but they’re definitely among the more interesting ones.

Rating: 4/5

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  1. At first I thought maybe you were reviewing a book about Californian history. 🙂

    This does sound like an interesting book. I like it when the setting acts as sort of a character in and of itself. Great review, Florinda. I’m adding this one to my wishlist.

  2. Literary Feline – Or California’s future, more likely. That’s what I liked about the title, Wendy :-). I do have a dangerous weakness for puns.

    If you’d like a somewhat used copy of the book, just let me know! I don’t know anyone else who has read it, and it would be nice to get someone else’s take on it.

  3. “The Ruins of California may not be the most lovable family I’ve ever met, but they’re definitely among the more interesting ones.”

    The most interesting things are usually not be happy ones….