By Martha Sherrill Penguin, 318 pages, $24.95
The Ruins of California, Martha Sherrill's breezy, enjoyable second novel, is narrated by Californian Inez Ruin, hence the title's double meaning. Divided into year-titled sections, the plot doesn't gather narrative steam until three-quarters of the way through. On top of this structure, the vividness of the setting—California in the 1970s—makes Ruins read like a memoir. And that's a good thing.
Despite some typical activities, like visiting family members, Inez is not your typical coming-of-age narrator. She's got a distinct lack of angst and fails to freak out about anything, from her mother's changing moods, hobbies and boyfriends to her father's stream of sweet young things. "It's probably not fair to say I was the passive type. But maybe I was," Inez reflects. "I was receptive and quiet. I stood around a lot—waiting for balls to be pitched, orders to be given, situations to arise."
Though Inez doesn't seem to think her life is unusual, it's not the way most of us grew up: effortlessly gorgeous and intelligent, getting stoned at the urging of family members, receiving Dad's old MG as a 16th birthday present. After high school, Inez goes to Hawaii, where her half-brother Whitman is hanging out. Once she's in Hawaii, a reader will either really begin to hate her ("And being new to the North Shore wasn't cool, unless you were...a really cute girl. Then nobody minded at all."), or simply consider moving to Hawaii. It's in this island setting that Inez steps out of passivity, growing more decisive and self-aware, albeit in a characteristically low-key fashion.
In the end, Ruins is much like Ruin herself: laid-back and nonchalantly intelligent. The prose is matter-of-fact, with precise descriptions you can wrap your mind around (Inez describes where she shopped in high school: "crummy vintage shops full of musty racks and mannequins with missing limbs and deco posters under flickering lights"), with lyrical, sometimes drawn-out sentences. It's not a book designed to change your life, but there is enough substance and momentum in Inez's evolving relationships with her father and brother to make it successful, and in an almost voyeuristic sense, reading about the Ruins is a great deal of fun.
Martha Sherrill reads from The Ruins of California