Sunday, July 1, 2012

Beautiful Ruins

I didn't figure out that Jess Walter was a man until half-way through the book when I went to his website to start putting this post together. It doesn't really matter to the story in the least, but finding out the author was  a man threw me a bit for some reason.

Anyway, that's irrelevant to the review. This was a great book with a lot of layers that jumps to different time periods. When I got to the end, it seemed at first like nothing really happened but it still felt cathartic.

Beautiful Ruins covers a lot of stories. The first is the story of a beautiful young American actress in 1962 who had a small part in the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton film, Cleopatra. She ends up going to a tiny coastal village in Italy to meet someone. I'm not going to get more specific than that, except to say that her presence in this town is a purposeful mistake. That does make sense, trust me. There she meets Pasquale, a young owner of a failing hotel who is in awe of the actress. In the early 1960s, WWII still loomed over the heads of many people, including Pasquale, even though he was born at the end of (or maybe after) the war.

The story soon shifts to the present time to Claire Silver, assistant to the once famous producer, Michael Deane, who is connected back to the actress, Dee Moray, and Pasquale in the 1960s. Claire loves movies with a passion and is distraught by how Hollywood is more focused on reality TV than making quality films. On Fridays, anyone can come to Deane's office and pitch an idea. Usually Claire hears pitches from a string of people who had some sort of connection with Deane. On the Friday in the book, a young writer named Shane Wheeler shows up with a terrible movie idea about the Donner Party. Shane also happens to speak a bit of Italian, which comes in handy when an aged Pasquale Tursi shows up, looking for Dee Moray.

Despite the jumps back and forth in time, the novel works really well. You never get a full story out of any of the characters but you do get the beginning, middle and end of Dee's story and how each of these characters interacted with her from 1962 to the present.

The novel also plays around with different styles. There's the traditional novel, but then there's Shane's movie pitch, the first chapter from Deane's unpublished memoir, which was rejected since none of the claims in it could be proven (this comes close to the end and explains the entire situation that Dee Moray found herself in, leading to her short time in Pasquale's village), and finally, the one and only chapter of Alvis Bender's WWII novel. Bender is a drunk American who spends two weeks a year in Pasquale's hotel, pretending to write his great novel, which is more like a disillusioned WWI novel than the type of heroic stories told about WWII back then. Bender flits in and out of the story as well. The final two characters are Pat Bender, a middle aged, failed musician and Richard Burton himself. Burton features into the 1962 storyline, while Pat Bender's plot is told during 2008 and the present time.

The NY Times review below does this book more justice than I can, although it also gives a bit more away than I did. I have to include this one excerpt from it about the book's chronology: "As with any story that relies on scrambled chronology, it’s worth wondering how “Beautiful Ruins” would work as a straightforward narrative. Not as well. Moments of confusion would vanish, but so would the magic. Mr. Walter has always been more intuitive than linear, a believer in capricious destiny with a fine, freewheeling sense of humor. The deeply romantic heart of “Beautiful Ruins” is better expressed by constant circling than it would by any head-on approach."

This is a book about love. The love between spouses, between parents and children, the love of power, innocent first love and the wild, crazy, passionate love that grew between Taylor and Burton. Even though Elizabeth Taylor is not a character in the book, or even seen except in a photograph, her tempestuous affair with Richard Burton set the stage for the entire plot.

There's a lot of reasons why this novel might not have worked but it really did. The ending was lovely and satisfactory, the characters were interesting and it was an intriguing look at the American movie scene after WWII, something I find far more interesting than books about musicians. This is a sprawling, lyrical story that is in no way light and breezy but still could be easily devoured while sitting by a pool or in a beach chair. It definitely is a smart summer book. Enjoy!

NY Times Review 

NPR Review 

Buy it at amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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