Not Particularly Reflective

A mistake for The Ruins of California, the story of someones life

The book's technical flaws don't help. There are plain mistakes (people didn't say "Bring it on" in the 1970s; Apocalypse Now came out in 1979, not 1977; D.H. Lawrence never wrote a book called Men in Love). There are also much more serious errors of craft. Sherrill's not a talented dialogue writer—the characters don't have distinctive voices. And the first rule of the realistic novel—show, not tell—gets violated constantly and egregiously. Speaking of her mother, Inez says, "After taking the est training, she'd become talkative and almost strident. She was openly reflective, too, but she was bad at it. Introspection was new to her, she exploded with revelations—some of them totally stupid—and being around her felt like a demolition derby." How was she bad at reflection? What kinds of stupid revelations did she come up with? Give us a scene where these things are dramatized rather than simply relayed to the reader. These are Creative Writing 101 questions, and it's amazing that Sherrill, or her editor, didn't ask them.

Worse is the fact that, in this strung-together narrative where everything seems more or less as important as everything else, the two major incidents that do stand out—the day that Inez's grandmother dies in a horseback riding accident while Inez follows behind (high on marijuana) and the night Inez finally loses her virginity—are both told after the fact, rather than rendered in present-tense dramatic scenes. The immediacy of the events gets lost amidst the banal meditation on the events.

I can see why the book got published. There's the '70s detail, Sherrill is a clear sentence writer, and the novel has a well-mannered, good heart. Inez's grandmother at one point tells her that "you have the best manners anybody can have. Because they aren't manners—that's why. It's just who you are." Inez, and her creator, have very good writerly manners—delicate, inoffensive, not too thoughtful—qualities that may make for a nice little tea party in San Marino, but novel writing ain't no tea party, particularly not when you're trying to sum up a messy, messy decade.

THE RUINS OF CALIFORNIA BY MARTHA SHERRILL; PENGUIN. HARDCOVER, 315 PAGES, $24.95.

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