on January 27, 2006
This is a wonderful, heart-breakingly beautiful novel that puts the author, Martha Sherrill, in my pantheon of author/heroes. Today's review by the impeccable Carolyn See in the Washington Post (1/27/06) captures it far, far better than I ever could. She writes: "This book isn't for everyone, but I don't want to know the people it isn't for. This is for people with broken homes and smashed hearts and extraordinary bravery and gallantry and imagination. This novel is for those who love their families with a terrible love and prize filial piety above all things, even though that family -- and it's bound to be overextended -- appears bound straight for Hell in several different handbaskets. It's about practicing courage and manners and tradition even as Dad introduces his 17th girlfriend. Yes, it's about self-destruction, but it's really about love -- the real thing -- about how we get it and how we keep it. I'm crazy about 'The Ruins of California.' It gives me hope for the whole human race."
Ditto Carolyn See. Brava Martha Sherrill.
California in the 1970's is ripe with possibilities for a comprehensive lifestyle novel, and author Martha Sherrill has done a fine job mining them with an adept skill at rich characterization and period detail. The ironic title is not an allegorical or geophysical description of the Golden State but the name of the family at the center of this complex intergenerational, cross-cultural story. The novel opens in 1968 with the assassination of Robert Kennedy. From that galvanizing moment, the author traces the formative years of Inez Garcia Ruin, tracing her rather dysfunctional family relationships from grade school to college. Her divorced parents are a case study in socioeconomic opposites - her mother Consuelo is a beautiful half-Peruvian, half-Mexican ex-flamenco dancer living a modest middle-class existence in the suburbs of Los Angeles, while her father Paul is a womanizing, enterprising university professor living high, literally and figuratively, on expensive Telegraph Hill in San Francisco.
At the outset, Inez is just seven years old, and over the course of the story, she inhabits several distinct worlds, as she shuttles back and forth between her parents. Sherrill regales in the contrast of these worlds by providing us a shrewdly observant, meticulously described decade of cultural chasms between Northern and Southern California. The author has Inez spending art-oriented, bohemian weekends with her father, as well as English-style horse riding and tea partying with her grandmother Marguerite. Down south, Inez's life is more spartan and pale as her mother struggles to make ends meet and her grandmother Abuelita works as a housekeeper. Sherrill methodically introduces us to a gallery of intriguing characters, for instance, her childhood best friend is a Mormon girl whose upbeat family provides a much-needed refuge until the teenaged Inez meets the drug-addled and sexually promiscuous Shelley, a girl who would like nothing more than to take her to bed. One of the most interesting characters is Whitman, Inez's half brother, who epitomizes Inez's ideal of regality, breeding and bohemianism.
It is obvious that the author favors the father's side for her richest writing and deepest characterizations seem to reside securely up north, but one of her great strengths as a writer is how she makes use of all these very disparate, racially diverse characters as metaphors for the microcosm California represents - now as well as 1970's. As the self-proclaimed "baton of a girl" is passed around and allowed to drift between disparate locales, Sherrill sketches a deeper, more uncompromising portrait of Inez as she grows up. There are several heartbreaking moments detailed, but there is a realistic sense of hope that makes the story feel less than nihilistic. By having Inez narrate her own story, Sherrill provides a vibrant portrayal of not only an adolescent in emotional transition but a state moving gradually from a hippie-oriented culture to one greeting the Reagan era with surprising openness.
on February 1, 2006
This is a beautiful, sad and moving novel about families and all that goes with them. The father/Paul character is funny, smart, pathetic, and utterly fascinating. Captures the 70's in all its messy glory. Her other book "My Last Movie Star" is quite good, too.
on March 19, 2006
Before I read The Ruins of California, my understanding of those who reached middle age in the 1970s was framed by John Cheever. Their mid-life crises involved late night drinking-and-dialing to old college pals and lovers. Getting soused and crashing your neighbors' suburban swimming pools.
With elegant writing and fine dialogue, Ms. Sherrill has produced a novel which expands my thinking about this liberating--and debauched--time in my parents' generation. The book covers familiar ground--a girl's coming of age, a daughter-father relationship--in a refreshing and highly-entertaining way.
Inez Ruin splits time between her divorced parents' lives. She lives with her est-fulfilled mother and grandmother in a house in Van Dale, a Southern California suburb, where her bedroom is pink and all her friends go to church. To visit her gorgeous, brilliant and promiscuous--and egocentric, and self-indulgent, and wealthy--father, Inez regularly flies north to San Francisco, land of afros and patchouli, "passing from mother to father, a baton of a girl flying in the distance between hands."
I lost count of Inez' father's girlfriends, as Paul Ruin pursues the intoxication of new love, over and over, all the while over-indulging his two children with expensive gifts and exhortations to lead free lives, to not sell out. When his son skips college, Paul declines to intervene, justifying his inaction with the thinking of the day: "'He's got to come to all big decisions on his own,' my father said. 'Or else he'll just blame me, or blame his mother, or, worse, he'll never learn how to make a big decision at all.'" The devastating consequences of this way of thinking are made starkly apparent by the story's end.
As the author guides us through Inez' teen years, she recreates the thrills of girlhood crushes, breaking rules, that first car, and getting high. She also relates the unlikeable selfishness of teendom, without making us permanently hate Inez.
I've read all three of Ms. Sherrill's books, and in my view this latest effort is her finest. I especially loved all the mentions of what made the 70s the 70s to a girl growing up then; bamboo back scratchers, Get Smart, Necco wafers, Corvairs, those pink, round vinyl Samsonite suitcases. What makes this book memorable is the ultimately gladdening portrait of a complex daughter-father relationship, a relationship which reaches a satisfying coda along with the decade: everybody eventually has to grow up.
on February 3, 2006
Ms. Sherrill has published three books : the non-fiction "The Buddha From Brooklyn" (2000) when she was still a reporter from the Washington Post; the novel "My Last Movie Star" (2003); and now her second fictional book, "The Ruins of California." As always, she has an eye for detail and for irony (the title contains at least two meanings) in her semi-biographical novel of her childhood and her larger-than-life father.
Forsaking a straight-forward memoir of her eccentric family, she strives instead to capture the spirit of growing up in California after the 1960's and the spirit of her father instead of a accumulation of details. Quirky but readable, the father-daughter relationship is the heart of this book and one wonders how much is factual for Ms. Sherrill & how much is it the way she wished it could have been. A wonderful read on a time and a place and a family that has come and gone.
on February 7, 2006
The Ruins of California is a must read. Smart and smooth, the book not only describes the 70's in California with fun detail, but takes you through the growth of a child lobbed between a bohemian father in San Francisco and a more rigid enviroment with an artistic mother in a staid part of southern California. Add on top of that some nutty cousins, a granddame of a grandmother and some great, well researched California background, and the books pages seem to turn themselves as you ride along with the main character Inez. One of the best books of this century!
on May 29, 2015
I found this book in the library and checked it out because I loved the cover and it looked interesting. What a find! The book is memorable, heart-breaking, true to life and will stay with you long after you've read the last page. I grew up in the 70's and my father lived in California - the writing is incredibly vivid and authentic. The descriptions of the landscape, lifestyle and people are dead on. It makes you realize what a special time it was in this country. Inez and the other characters are so well developed - you really care about them and grow to love them. I came away wanting more from Martha Sherrill. What a strong and beautiful writer! I am recommending this to my book group and will buy the paperback!
on May 23, 2011
Received this item, in good condition as stated, in a timely manner and for a good price through Amazon.com.
This book was chosen as our book of the month in my book club.
Personally, this book was disappointing. I like more action and a really good reason to hurry up and turn the next page. It lacked secrets, betrayals, and action (there was one bit of action but it was over way too soon) and a good ending. I love reading a book where you delay reading the last few pages because you don't want it to be over. I read to the end so I could discuss it with the girls.
However, there were others in the club who did enjoy it (one gal loved it!). She liked the dialogue and the relationships and the locations. Every book is not for every reader and thank goodness that there are thousands of artists to meet all of our needs.
on February 25, 2006
Inez Ruin is about six years old when her story begins. A bright and effusive young girl, Inez lives with Consuela, her blousy, former flamenco dancing mother, and Abuelita, her Peruvian grandmother in Van Dale, a working class suburb in the San Fernando Valley. Life for Inez is pretty ordinary, at least on the Latino side of the family; Consuela is a good mother to her, but she's often lost and loud, "with a mind like a sail, her face weird and dreamy," and her grandmother is never around, a life spent instilled with the work ethic, she spends most of her time working cleaning houses.
Her father, Paul lives in San Francisco and as the novel opens, Inez is being packed off to spend the summer with him. Paul is a college educated mathematical genius, he's also the archetype of the early seventies West Coast hippy chic. Groovy and play boyishly handsome, "with inky black hair, and always wearing crisp, starched white shirts," Paul drives an MG, loves flamenco dancing, and to the reticent Inez, he is the embodiment of all that is cool and elegant.
Inez spends most of her youth gliding from one zone of life to another, from the serenity and innocence suburban of Van Dale to the glamorous and cosmopolitan cafes of North Beach, "where she drinks dark espresso with three packets of sugar," but she often feels like a fish out of water, never really feeling at home in either culture, her father living so separately from her, and in such different circumstances of climate and culture.
Paul's life is a "foggy universe of beautiful people and rich hippies," where Inez often feels out of place, where her clothes are wrong, and where she never knows what to say. She's often overwhelmed by her father's whirlwind round of dinner parties, film screenings, museum openings, and Haight-Ashbury happenings. He organizes flamenco festivals, and throws" juergas" - flamenco parties, and shares an attitude, a sensibility, and a groovy wavelength, with his "in" crowd.
Whilst Consuela busies herself selling real estate, attending personal improvement classes, and hooking up with an eighth grade school teacher, Paul woos his daughter with heavy doses of charm and love. Just when she had decided he was a rat and a fink, it would dawn on her that he was a god and she loved him more than anybody; its as though her father makes her - and also her half brother Whitman - uncertain and off kilter, "you wanted more of him, but you weren't sure either."
Inez is constantly caught off guard by the parade of girlfriends that steadily marches through Paul's life, the stream of beauties, each one more accomplished than the last, who give him hope and make him feel alive and young and desired: there's the sweet hippy Marisa, who charms Inez by giving her trinkets from Cracker Jack boxes; there's Justine, an astonishing beauty "with a strange and unearthly elegance," who has a knowledge of Eastern religion and has a silken tent that she erects in her living room with candles inside; she totally beguiles Inez with her lovely patchouli smell and her expensive designer outfits.
Author Martha Sherrill beautifully charts Inez's growth from a wide-eyed and precocious innocent into a young woman, who sees the world as a place of enormous possibility, yet is also aware this world can be fraught with danger and indecision. As Inez matures and changes, so does the image of her father. Paul is a gloomy, difficult, sweet insightful and honest man, adoration like a drug to him; but he's also a man quick to criticize, and instruct, and at the same time lenient, constantly coddling his daughter with flattery and indulgences.
Regardless of his faults, over the years Inez grows to unconditionally love her father; part of her growth is the realization that the Ruin family are a complicated and often self-indulgent lot, who beg for attention and analysis. They're also romantics - always finding ways to feel special about themselves and better than other people; they're theatrical, and outrageous, and even provocative.
Full of ironic and fragile judgments about life, love, and the human condition, The Ruins of California is also about the legacy of familiaral love. The characters are beautifully drawn and are utterly fascinating. Paul is most memorable, because he is a complex mix of good intentions and human flaws; he's obviously a product of his free-wheeling, permissive time, but he's also a man who just doesn't want to grow up, constantly trapped in a netherworld of adolescent angst, frozen by his unremitting vanity and self-absorption.
It is obvious that Paul dearly loves Inez and Whitman, and that he will do anything that he can to help them - he encourages them to go to college, and constantly promotes the benefits of hard work - but the irony is that, when the crunch finally comes, and a terrible family crisis threatens to fracture them, it is the world-wise and newly mature Inez who provides the navigating force, and who ultimately liberates her father. Mike Leonard February 06.
on March 13, 2007
Inez is very understandable and likeable. I enjoyed her character; especially that she didn't feel sorry for herself and grows through the years into a remarkable young lady who truly loves her half brother. I loved their relationship. All the characters in this book are very likeable even though flawed. But then again isn't that how we are in real life? I would highly recommend to anyone.