This is the conclusion of my review of The Ruins, by Scott Smith. The first half of the review can be found here. Again, spoilers follow.
Part II: Writing Style/Diction
The story moves pretty slowly. Smith tries to make the tension mount by using various tactics. One such method is making the plant reveal its “powers” gradually, even though it could always have talked to the people or invaded their bodies. Another method (mentioned in the previous review) is making the characters take a really long time to figure anything out. Of course, this all just proves to be annoying, rather than frightening.
Smith spends a lot of time on description, and while this can sometimes help the reader “see” the story, it more often proves annoying. Take this quote:
“He ate. He put the food in his mouth. He chewed. He swallowed.”
Must he really go into a description of how someone eats? I think most of us could “see” the situation without it needing to be laid out like that. Granted, this series of statements is rare in the book, but the exact sequence (describing how to eat) occurs at least twice (perhaps another time I did not notice, as well).
Smith has a good vocabulary, but he writes as though he chooses the most “advanced” word he knows and then repeats it, over, and over, and over, and never reverts to a more “basic” synonym. I wish I had been counting so I could give an exact number, but I know he used “relinquish” no less than eight times, and that’s simply far too many. “Inexorable” was used a similarly absurd amount of times. Repetition pervades his style – repetition of not just words, but phrases. He thinks it’s a good idea to make Eric repeat the same two words in his head. Smith also says what someone is thinking about doing, followed by the statement, “And so [she] did.” He does this several times, and it just seems crappy to me. An extrapolated example:
“Stacy wanted to drink some water. And so she did.”
The reader gets the distinct impression that Smith did not feel the need to do any research for this story. Nothing he presents is beyond the realm of common knowledge, save for a few Boy Scout survival tricks (like distilling urine). Though two of the characters are supposedly going into medical school, Smith makes only a passing reference to it and neither person seems very knowledgeable about science. I suppose one cannot fault Smith for just wanting to write a story about Mexico, Mayans, and killer plants without the need to research the locale, tribal customs, or any sort of biology or ecology. It’s simply in stark contrast to the writing of someone like Michael Crichton (a Harvard Medical School graduate), who does extensive research and actually teaches the reader new information.
Rather than give us useful background information about culture or plants (which he could have done, since the story is not narrated in the first person, but in a third person in which the narrator seems to have a damned limited view of the world), Smith tells little “filler” stories which seem to draw the book out without providing the reader with a greater understanding of the characters or advance the plot. For instance, a great deal of time is spent talking about the uncle of one of the girls (I forget which one). The uncle is crazy, irrelevant, and the whole point of the story was just to give some sort of trite proverb to the effect of “life is short; don’t let it pass you by.” Or perhaps it was “don’t do anything you’re going to regret” – clearly, it was a very forgettable, yet lengthy, part of the book. I have other examples of pointless diversionary stories, but they aren’t pertinent to this review.
A reviewer from Amazon.com remarked that it felt like The Ruins was a short story which was dragged out into a novel, and I agree. The whole book could have been adapted into a 30-minute TV show. When the viewer stopped watching the show, he probably would have had this impression: “Man, I want those thirty minutes of my life back.”
At least he won’t have to worry about a killer vine haunting his dreams, because it’s simply not frightening.