RUINS OF CALIFORNIAMartha SherrillPenguin Press Hardcover,January 2006Heather HoffmanMirror book criticAsk Martha Sherrill, author of new novel Ruins of California, what she misses most about her home state, and she replies, “There’s something about the air in California that I can never stop missing…a kind of dryness, a kind of breeze, a quality of the wind, the way it feels in your skin and your face and your hair…there’s a dry cool air in California that I’ve never felt anywhere else.”Ruins of California reverberates with California breezes. Cool ocean air flows through Inez, Sherrill’s reluctant heroine. Inez tells readers the story of her coming of age from childhood to adolescence to womanhood in the form of a fictional memoir, each section covering a different year of her life, from 1969 to 1980. Inez is a child of divorce. She lives with her conservative mother and grandmother in Van Dale (a.k.a. Glendale), and visits her flamboyant, womanizing father in the Telegraph Hill area of San Francisco. She quickly learns how to rationalize this difficult arrangement, never allowing herself a moment of self-pity. “During the lull between his calls and letters,” she says, “it’s not that my father was dead in my mind, exactly. He was kept on hold, cinematic freeze frame—the pause button not released until I picked up the phone or stepped off the plane. Maybe it was painful to think of him, or maybe his unpredictability and aloof nature made it impossible to project him into material existence. He lived so separately from me, and in such different circumstances in climate and culture…that thinking about him was like trying to ponder what a character in a movie might be doing long after the movie ended.”At first, Inez seems shy, but in fact, she is incredibly observant. Always willing to be the quiet partner in conversations, she truly enjoys absorbing other people’s knowledge and experiences. Through her young eyes, readers will discover the exuberance of 1970s California. Inez takes it all in: listening to Joni Mitchell with all the lights off and incense burning, Werner Ernard and the est movement, the birth of the personal computer industry, the birth of the Renassance Pleasure Faire, and many other California experiences.Inez manages to maintain her California cool within a large, fragmented family. As a child of mixed ethnicity (her father is Anglo, her mother is half Mexican, half Peruvian) she experiences almost every level of California economic strata. She visits her father’s wealthy family in San Benito (San Marino), then returns home to her maternal grandmother, a hardworking housekeeper for a rich white family. The following weekend she’s up in San Francisco, going to flamenco bars and sleeping on her father’s couch. Later in the book she visits her half-brother on a new age organic farm in Ojala (Ojai) and finally ends up where all Californians go to be even more Californian, the North Shore of Hawaii.The magic of Sherill’s craft in this novel is that even though Inez is telling her story in the past tense, presumably from a future decade, her hindsight never falls prey to the usual rambling rationalizations readers often slog through in memoirs. Sherrill’s pitch-perfect narrator mpves so seamlessly from the wise voice of an older woman to the immediate, urgent reactions of a young girl that readers never feel jarred between the two perspectives. Sherrill has melded them so brilliantly that readers of all ages will easily relate to Inez.Most intriguing are the moments in Ruins of California when Inez, in the midst of telling her story, surprises herself with a new insight into her own character. Like the reader, there are parts of her story she doesn’t know until she gets there. When she re-reads the journal she kept as a teenager, she remarks, “I jotted musings about life, fluctuating philosophies, and what seemed like crucial observations. It was written self-consciously, a little too blandly, too carefully…I never wrote much about my parents, either of them. What they did—or neglected to do—didn’t seem worth recording. Maybe I wasn’t conscious enough, or sensitive. But when my father wouldn’t come to my junior high school graduation…the journal contains no mention of it.”All in all, Ruins of California succeeds on many levels. It is a story of a blended family that doesn’t quite mix, a loving father who doesn’t know how to be a parent, and the many innocent 1970s California phenomena that can begin with wonder and end with heartache. Inez rests comfortably in the center of this whirlwind, a California girl who, in the process of trying to stay mellow and “go with the flow,” eventually discovers both the beauty of her home state, and her true identity as a woman.
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