When I read Martha Sherrill's The Ruins of California, which follows the life of fictional Inez Ruin in 1970s California, I was also rereading Judy Blume's Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret. That I kept confusing the two protagonists suggests two things: Despite the book's boomer-skewed presentation, Ruins is a glorified young adult novel; and read as such, Sherrill does little to revise or update the genre.
Granted, Sherrill isn't writing for kids, but she'd be better off foregoing children altogether. This ostensibly "adult" novel gains all of its narrative impetus from the coming-of-age pangs of a young girl; but though Inez narrates in the first person, the effect is of an adult reflecting a little too indulgently on her own past. Inez is, apparently, perfect: She's pretty, smart enough, well-liked, and all of her problems are just a little bit too glamorous to invite sympathy.
Ruins follows Inez from grade three through college, and at the heart of the book is Inez's relationship with her father. Her parents are divorced—her father is a handsome womanizer who justifies his slutty ways with the argument that "marriage is bad for women." On her frequent trips to visit him in San Francisco, she gets a taste of what big city life is like (sex, drugs, staying up past bedtime). She essentially lives a double life, her time with her boho dad in marked contrast to the conservative home she shares with her mother and grandmother.
Ruins is plagued by the sense that all of the adult characters would be fascinating, if only they weren't seen through the eyes of such a bland narrator. Sherrill is in fact quite an astute and engaging writer; she conjures up a strong sense of time and place, largely through cataloguing the various social trends that afflict Inez's parents. One gets the impression that were this a truly "adult" novel, it would be much more compelling, but as it stands, Ruins is limited by the weakness of its main character. Inez just isn't that interesting, no matter how many old men she sleeps with or drugs she tries, and the book suffers as a result. ALISON HALLETT