Thursday, April 11, 2013

Review: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

I know they say you can't judge a book by its cover but we all do. If we didn't, the entire art department at publishers would be out of work. So when I saw the gorgeous cover of this book with an Italian village oceanside and perched in the cliffs, I knew the book was calling to me. When I saw that it was written by Jess Walter, whose The Financial Lives of the Poets I read several years ago, I knew I needed to read it. And when I saw that it combined a story of 1960s Italy and modern day Hollywood, I knew I had to own it. So I bought it and it sat on my shelf unread. But then a blog tour happened and it was the perfect excuse to read this book about two different times and places converging into one complete if tangled storyline.

Opening in 1962 as a beautiful, rising young actress, a member of the cast of the still under production Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton movie Cleopatra, boats into the tiny, forgotten town of Porto Vergogna, sent there because she's been told she's dying of stomach cancer. Dee Moray is to wait there in this blip on the map for the man who will take her onward to Switzerland where a doctor will treat her condition. Pasquale Tursi, a young Italian man newly returned home after the death of his father, stands deep in the port's waters when the boat carrying the beautiful actress arrives. He's trying to shift rocks in order to be able to build a tennis court cantilevered out over the ocean for the enjoyment of the American tourists his father, who owned the only hotel in town, and now he believed would soon discover and flock to the little hamlet. And lo and behold, just as in his beliefs, an American actress to stay in his tiny hotel. During the short tenure of her stay in Porto Vergogna, Dee and Pasquale, despite having trouble communicating (she has no Italian and his English is rudimentary) make an unexpectedly deep connection with each other. Pasquale is kind and loyal and he does his best to help Dee see the beauty around them in life. And Dee responds to the bone-deep honor and goodness of this young man as she learns the truth of her situation.

And then the novel flips to modern day Hollywood where once legendary producer Michael Deane, botoxed and cosmetically enhanced into a caricature and a cliche, lives and works on the fringes of a studio no longer making epic movies, instead making the worst sort of reality tv: on-screen train wrecks. His assistant Claire Silver is facing a career crisis as she looks forward with trepidation to another of Deane's Wild Pitch Fridays, a day where anyone and everyone who ever came into contact with the great Michael Deane, the crazy, the misguided, and the terminally untalented, is given the opportunity to come in and have a face to face pitch meeting over which Claire will have to preside. And this Friday is no exception. But at the tail end of the day, something different happens. Shane Wheeler, a screenwriter who lives in his parents' basement after a failed marriage, arrives late to give his pitch: a different, gritty, and deeply depressing take on the Donner Party focused not on the cannibalism but on the devastation and grief of the members of that ill-fated party. He arrives at the studio at the same time as an old Italian man searching for Dee Moray, whose only clue to her whereabouts is an ancient Michael Deane business card. And because of Shane's time brief time abroad in Italy, he becomes the de facto translator for Pasquale Tursi as he meets Michael Deane and they all set out on a quest fifty years in the making to find out whatever happened to Dee Moray.

The novel is not told in any sort of linear fashion, with the plot jumping backwards and forwards in time willy nilly and from character to character. This literary whiplash is hard to adjust to in the beginning but as the novel moves on, it becomes easier and easier to make the leaps with it. Not only is it told non-linearly, the novel also uses more than just straight traditional narration to tell the stories of the myriad of characters in its pages. Among the narrative devices are an unpublished screenplay, an autobiographical play performance, an unfinished World War II novel which starts at the end and never does have a beginning, and the expunged, sleazy, and legally indefensible version of a memoir subsequently sanitized and published for wider consumption. All of these different narrative devices mirror the themes of the novel as a whole and enrich the stories of the characters to whom they belong. But the sheer number of characters, the amount of stories and backstories, the epic scope of this cinematic, quintessential Hollywood story, and the careening roller coaster ride of the multiple plotlines handicap the novel a bit. Walter does pull everything together and make it all pertinent in the end but getting to that point is sometimes too much. He has written an interesting look at integrity, goodness, and living an honorable life versus self-serving greed, despair, and failure. Some of his people and places are in fact the beautiful ruins of the title while others are instead ugly ravaged remains of a lifetime of poor choices. Walter is definitely a talented writer so although this novel proved to be missing just that slightest bit of heart that would have had me raving over it instead of concentrating on the complexity of the plot and the fantastic gymnastics of the writing itself, it is worth a read.

For more information about Jess Walter and the book check out his website or follow him on Twitter. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.


  1. I listened to the audio book - wonderful.

  2. This book is DEFINITELY non-linear to say the least. It confused the heck out of me at first but I loved how everything came together by the end.

    Thanks for being on the tour!


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