The Ruins of California
Martha Sherrill
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Buy *The Ruins of California* by Martha Sherrill

The Ruins of California

Martha Sherrill
The Penguin Press
336 pages
January 2006
rated 5 of 5 possible stars
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We first meet the bright and effusive Inez Ruin in 1967, when she is about six years old. Inez lives in Van Dale, a working-class suburb of the San Fernando Valley with Consuela, her blousy, former flamenco dancing mother, and Abuelita, her Peruvian grandmother. Hers is a typical childhood for a young half-Latino girl; Consuela is a good mother but often lost and loud, "with a mind like a sail, her face weird and dreamy." Abuelita - possessed of a fierce work ethic - spends most of her time cleaning houses for wealthy entertainers in the Los Feliz Hills.

Inez, a child of divorce, is being packed off to spend the summer with her father in San Francisco as the novel opens. A college-educated mathematical genius, Paul is the archetype of early Seventies West Coast hippy chic. Groovy and boyishly handsome, "with inky black hair, and wearing crisp, starched white shirts," he drives an MG and loves flamenco dancing. To Inez, he embodies all that is cool and elegant.

As Inez glides from the tranquil suburbia of Van Dale to the glamorous and cosmopolitan cafes of North Beach "where she drinks dark espresso with three packets of sugar," she never really feels at home in either culture. Her father's life comes across as a "foggy universe of beautiful people and rich hippies," a constant whirlwind round of dinner parties, film screenings, museum openings, and Haight-Ashbury happenings. Inez always feels out of place – as though her clothes are all wrong and she never knows what to say. She laments the fact that she will never be able to share in the attitude, the sensibility, and the groovy wavelength of her father's "in" crowd.

Inez is surprisingly drawn to the parade of glamorous girlfriends that steadily march through Paul's life, each beauty more accomplished than the last, giving him hope and making him feel alive, young and desired. The sweet hippy Marisa charms Inez by giving her trinkets from Cracker Jack boxes. Justine, an astonishing beauty "with a strange and unearthly elegance," has a glossy tent that she erects inside her living room with candles inside; she totally beguiles Inez with her lovely patchouli smell and expensive designer outfits.

Author Martha Sherrill beautifully charts Inez's growth from a wide-eyed and precocious innocent into a young woman who begins to sees the world as a place of enormous possibility. As Inez matures and changes, so does the image of her father. He tries hard to be a good parent, but in his efforts to be left-of-center lenient, does he really know how to love? Paul is a gloomy, difficult, sweet, insightful and honest man who needs adoration like a drug. He is also a man quick to criticize and instruct, constantly coddling his daughter with flattery and indulgences, at times becoming shockingly personal.

Inez loves her father and her family. Part of her growth is the realization that the Ruin's are a complicated and often self-indulgent lot - theatrical, outrageous, even provocative, a family whose members beg for attention and analysis but are also unmitigated romantics.

Full of ironic and fragile judgments about life, love, and the human condition, The Ruins of California is also about the legacy of familial love. The characters are beautifully drawn and utterly compelling. Paul is most memorable, because he is a multifaceted mix of good intentions and human flaws. He is a product of the free-wheeling, permissive '70s, 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. 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 sense of calm, and who is ultimately able liberate her father.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2006

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