BOOK REVIEW: The Ruins of California
By Martha Sherrill.
The Ruins of California begins with the divorce of seven-year-old Inez Ruin’s parents in 1969 and chronicles 1970s California life through her eyes. Her home split in half, she travels between her father Paul’s elegantly bohemian existence in San Francisco and her primary home in suburban Los Angeles with her mother Connie, a dancer described as “one of the great flamencas of her generation.”
Sherrill’s depiction of 1970s California is vivid, and the Ruins epitomize the decade’s multicultural ideals. Her Peruvian-Mexian mother gave up dancing for the creature comforts of suburban life, while her hippie half-brother Whitman grew up on a commune to become a surfer.
And in stark contrast stands the blue-blooded grandmother Marguerite Ruin, who coaches Inez on niceties like music lessons, horseback riding and afternoon tea. Her father Paul’s string of beautiful girlfriends soon begins introducing new ideas to Inez—Buddhism, tarot cards, love beads, motorcycles—that form crucial coming-of-age impressions. As time passes, their bond becomes increasingly intense. And though Paul prefers being a friend rather than a father figure to Inez—offering pot, speaking frankly about sex and inflicting few rules—it becomes clear that if she is to break out of her role as a passively observant deer-in the-headlights it will be via her distant but loving father.
Everywhere, the accoutrements of the 70s are present, particularly the sensibility that nothing is a “big deal.” Throughout, Inez becomes much like California itself: a receptive guinea pig, a litmus test for the new. Surfing and beaches are omnipresent, and Sherrill brilliantly uses the movement of water as a tool for her unfettered prose, which is as languid as the era. Despite constant action—births, deaths, affairs ending and beginning—the language and pace make events simply wash over and leave faint impressions. This style lends complexity to the story and catapults the reader into a new set of realizations. It’s akin to riding a wave and landing on a calm Californian beach where everything is suddenly different, but you’re not exactly sure what has changed.