Martha Sherrill

"The Ruins of California"

(Reviewed by Nora Kathleen Reilly MAY 1, 2006)

“How does a girl grow up?  Does she imagine herself a woman-and simply direct herself there?  I nurtured opposing selves in those days, as though I were two people, or three, each of them incubating in separate honeycombs.  One girl-the visible one-was settled innocently in Van Dale with Robbie and our shared collection of Nancy Drew mysteries.  Another girl made trips to San Francisco in her knee socks and jumpers and saw The Godfather and Bullitt and sat in North Beach cafes drinking dark espresso with three packets of sugar.  But there was a third girl, a nymph secluded in the deepest interior of me-in the same place where I prayed, made wishes on pennies, yearned for a boyfriend, and fantasized that I was living in a high-rise apartment with mirrored walls and track lighting and silver trays of decanted liquor.” 

The Ruins of California by Martha Sherrill

Martha Sherrill’s The Ruins of California is the remarkably insightful and enchanting coming of age story about Inez Ruin, a young girl growing up in Southern California in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  The daughter of two beautiful and extremely complicated people who divorced just after she was born, Inez exists somewhere in the middle of their two very different worlds.  On one side is her mother, a Mexican-Peruvian ex-flamenco dancer whose influence on her daughter’s life remains peripheral due to periodic emotional breakdowns and personality crises. 

On the other, her father, Paul Ruin, whose somewhat glamorous life in San Francisco seems to consist mainly of flamenco bars, art house movies and candid conversations with his children about love and sex.  A strikingly handsome man who is vaguely important in the Southern California tech world of the 1960s and 70s, Paul Ruin’s true passion seems to lie somewhere between himself and falling in love with as many women as he can.  He is charismatic and intelligent but can also be self-centered and inconsiderate, often leaving those around him hurt and confused by the unreliability of his affections.  Not only is he the most important character in the book, (aside from the narrator, although even that’s debatable), but he is also one of the more fascinating characters I have ever encountered. 

The effect seems almost magical; everyone who comes into contact with him falls under his spell; a string of beautiful and intelligent women, one of Inez’s school friends, even his own children fall for him in their own way.  And just like everyone else, it will be hard for the reader not to become consumed by Paul Ruin’s caprices.  Without a doubt, the reader, along with Inez and her half brother Whitman, will be captivated by the changes he goes through; new cars, new women, new philosophies on life.  On each visit to San Francisco to see her father a new man greets Inez, but no matter how different this man may be from the one she said goodbye to weeks earlier, his decisions and motives are never questioned.  He remains an enigma, and especially to his own daughter who seems desperate to figure out if there is anything that will ever satisfy him.   

Sherrill plays out this father-daughter dynamic beautifully, not only capturing the delicate relationship between Inez and her father, but also the so very typically fraught relationship between any parent and teenage child with an exactitude that will ring true for many readers.  But sometimes this father-daughter relationship overshadows the rest of the story, and you may even be tempted to think that this novel is actually just about Paul Ruin.  And while it is true that his presence, his mood, his lavished attention or his utter abandonment of the other characters seem to dominate these pages, this story really centers around Inez and how she survives a tumultuous and potentially devastating adolescence relatively unscathed.

Inez experiences a great deal during the course of this novel, and even though a certain amount of ingenuousness lingers in her voice, the result is a narration that is intoxicatingly level-headed and graceful.  She possesses a clarity and a calmness which can only come from hindsight,  (I was never so composed at sixteen) but to Sherrill’s credit, this distance does not necessarily render her voice flat or phony, which is not an easy feat. The narration is not terribly emotional although we see Inez through the loss of a loved one and her first heartbreak.  It’s not overly self-conscious, but we get the feeling that she experiences the same insecurities as any other girl her age.  But, while the effect is refreshing (so many first-person narratives are overwhelmed by emotion ultimately masking the actual plot line), I finished the book feeling like Inez’s character had slipped through my fingers.

Sherrill puts a considerable amount of distance between the Inez who is writing the account of her teenage years and the teenage Inez.  Without such distance, perhaps we wouldn’t be on the receiving end of such a nice, neatly wrapped up version, but there are times when everything seems a little too neat.   For as much pain, remorse, humiliation, or anger I would imagine there to be while going through what the Ruins went through, nothing ever gets ugly.   Through their worst, the characters seem as composed and as good-looking as they are on their best days.  Sherrill never lets Inez explode, there is never any definitive judgment or resentment of her family members.  Inez reports all of her parents mistakes and all of her own missteps like the dutiful observer that she is, but she tip toes around her own emotions so that the reader is left unsure of how it all ended up effecting her.  This lack of rile may be disconcerting to some readers; sometimes you are left wanting a little more.  But, on the other hand, it may be this same cool detachment that will enchant the reader.  I, for one, was taken with Inez’s languid beauty and seeming indifference as she moved effortlessly from one party to the next, from one stage of her life to the next.  When things got bad it was sort of a drag, but in the end everything turned out all right.

And while Sherrill does keep Inez’s character elusive, she manages to give us just enough to keep us turning the pages, hoping that on the next one she’s just spill it all.  Ultimately, the allure of this family, all of whom seem to be remarkably attractive and enigmatic, will undoubtedly capture the reader’s sympathies.  Any reader would find it hard not to be drawn into all this beauty.  Along with the detailed descriptions of the California landscape and culture of the 1960s and 70s, The Ruins of California is an engaging and unexpectedly refreshing read, one which I highly recommend especially during these winter months.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 11 reviews


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About the Author:

Martha SherrillMartha Sherrill was a staff writer for The Washington Post from 1989 to 1999. She has also written for Esquire, Vanity Fair, and other magazines.

She lives with her husband and son in the Washington, D.C., area.  

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