Thursday, July 4, 2013

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

When I read something like "A literary miracle" on the front cover of a book, I'm both intrigued and wary.  Like, what does that even mean?  Literary miracle.  Well, after having read Beautiful Ruins, I understand.

It seems something of a miracle that the Jess Walter was able to create such depth in his stories and his characters in a single book and even in single chapters.  The book starts in a tiny village in Italy in 1962, from the perspective of a young hotelier who inherited the hotel when his father passed away.  Pasquale, the young hotelier, is excited when his friend Orenzio brings a beautiful young American actress, Dee Moray, to his hotel, for whom Pasquale quickly falls.  It was well written and believable.

However, after reading the chapter, I was worried that I was not going to really enjoy this one because I was not really in the mood to read another foreign literary masterpiece that is dry and boring and too dense to really care.  Not that the first chapter was those things -- I was just concerned that it was going to be given the high praise and where the book started.

After another day or two, I picked up the book again and started reading the second chapter.  The second chapter is in Hollywood, "recently" (say, around 2010), from the perspective of a young girl (late-20s) who is disillusioned about life, hollywood, and her future.  It was fresh and modern and believable.  It was not dry, boring, or too dense to really care.  Claire is trying to find herself in Hollywood, after landing her dream job as assistnat to the legendary but somewhat washed up Michael Deane, and after landing her dream boyfriend - the gorgeous but stripper-obsessed idiot in her bed, she's realized that the glitter and the glamour are not all they're cracked up to be.  With a new job prospect from a small new museum, Clair is considering whether it's time to throw in the towel on film production and cut her losses.  When the new museum happens to be primarily funded by the church of scientology, it gives Clair just enough pause to give herself an ultimatum:  Either she finds the one film she's been dreaming she would make on Wild Pitch Friday (where the pitches are unlikely to be for glorious masterpieces), or she quits both her job and her boyfriend and takes up the job building the new museum.

And then I lost track of the chapters and time as I tore through the rest of the book.
The various chapters are told interchangeably from the perspectives of Claire, Pasquale, Michael Deane (even through the memoir his agent told him they could never publish, but which Deane gives to Claire to read), Dee Moray and her son Pat Bender.  Each perspective is believable -- the view from a 1962 Italian Pasquale's eyes is just as convincing as the view from a 2010-ish Hollywood Claire's eyes, is just as convincing as the memoir written from Michael Deane explaining the whole "mess."  Walter even incorporates famous people and movies -- Liz Taylor and Richard Burton in Cleopatria -- to add to the realism of the tale, without ever crossing lines into the impossibility (i.e., he did not change any known facts, he just added in details into the pockets and unknowns that could be... who knows... feasible).

The perspectives are all over the place, the times are all over the place, the stories are all over the place, -- front to back and back to front, and yet it is a cohesive, believable, perfectly timed story.  A miracle.  Even more.... he managed to actually tie together all of the characters from the 1940s to 2010, from all over the world, without it being "too convenient."  I was so impressed with Walter.  It felt like just a series of life events that ultimately brought all of the characters together within one story.  But it did not feel forced or contrived.  It just felt... natural.  Like yeah, that's what happened.

And then you find yourself nearing the end of the book.  But, oh no, there are too many strings to tie up!!  He's going to leave me hanging, I just know it.... ahhh, i hope he at least wraps up ____, and ____.  And ___.  But how can he!  Too few pages....  You keep reading.

And he does it.  and it feels a little bit like a miracle.  Not everything is neat and bowtied, but it's all done just enough to leave the reader at peace.  With all of the stories, and all of the different lines, and all of the different characters, resolved just enough to close the book and go to sleep.  All is well.

A literary miracle.  Now I understand...

(this and other reviews at
(see also book group review at Desert Girls Blog)

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