Thursday, October 10, 2013

Beautiful Ruins - Jess Walter

Beautiful Ruins
Each summer, along with the super hero blockbusters hitting the theaters, there seems to be a book or two dominating the shelves.  As with any part of pop culture, your own circle of influence dictates what you hear about.  Last summer, all I heard about was Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl.  Rightful so, it seems, as the adaptation will hit theaters starring some pretty big names.  

This summer, this book kept popping up all over: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter.

I have had my eye on this book since the first or second time it came across my radar this summer.  The cover art is gorgeous and, I'll admit, sometimes I judge a book by its cover.  Not the ones I've read, of course, but the ones I'm thinking about reading.  I'm awful.  That's like cardinal rule number one of reading and I break it all the time.  I mean, it takes more than a good cover for me to read something.  I have other criteria.  It's just that a bad cover can turn me off before I even get to the blurb on the back or another reader's review.

I digress.

When Beautiful Ruins popped up as available on my library's ebooks site, I could not turn down the opportunity.  As with so many of these popular summer books, you either have to sit on the waiting list forever or have a lucky break.  I typically try for the later.

Walter's hit book follows several narratives across several countries and decades.  The 'main' story takes place in a small Italian village nestled on the mountainous coast.  The dying town can only be reached by boat.  There, a young college graduate, Pasquale, runs the only hotel in town with his dying mother and his eccentric aunt.  He dreams of turning the hotel into a major tourist destination but, instead, he finds "himself inhabiting the vast, empty plateau where most people live, between boredom and contentment."  His life changes the day an American actress, Dee, comes to the town as any visitor does - by mistake.

From there, the story weaves through time and space.  Claire, an assistant to a prominent Hollywood producer, debates leaving her job and her boyfriend.  Pat, a washed-up musician and serious addict, hits rock bottom in the U.K.  Alvis, an American veteran with writer's block, struggles to articulate his experiences in the war.  Shane, a drifting writer, tries to sell his script about the Donner party expedition.  Of course, in the end, they all come together to climax the plot and drive home Walter's themes.

At its simplest level, Beautiful Ruins is about the relationship between Dee and Pasquale.  They are reunited in the end after years of unrequited feelings.  All the other characters and stories could be seen in support of theirs.  Really, though, the book is about so much more.  Walter has written an ode to failure - failure in relationships, failure in parenting, failure in career, failure in addiction, failure in life.  Beautiful Ruins is about failure and how to move on from it.  Walter weaves together every minute story line at the end and they suddenly seem, not random, but entirely cohesive.  It really is a beautiful conclusion.

Walter has several really great near-philosophical moments for his characters as well.  In post-WWII Italy, writer Alvis Bender rambles about the rise and fall of story-telling methods.  He says,
"Like the Roman Empire, the epic poem stretched for centuries, as far as the world.  The novel rose with the British Empire, but wait...what is that rising in America? Film?"  
I loved that line for its truth.  Walter later drives home the new predominance of film through another character in another time.  As Shane prepares his pitch for a 21st century producer, he monologues about the place of movies in our time.
"Weren't movies his generation's faith anyway - its true religion?  Wasn't the theater our temple, the one place we enter separately but emerge from two hours later together, with the same experience, same guided emotions, same moral?  A million schools taught ten million curricula, a million churches features ten thousand sects with a billion sermons - but the same movie showed in every mall in the country.  And we all saw it! That summer, the one you'll never forget, every movie house beamed the same set of thematic and narrative images - the same Avatar, same Harry Potter, same Fast and the Furious, flickering pictures stitched in our minds that replaced our own memories, archetypal stories that became our shared history, that taught us what to expect from life, that defined our values.  What was that but a religion?"
 I could read a whole book written around this idea of story telling methods changing with culture, each consuming the generations they rule over.  Walter shows in these moments that he is more than a flash-in-the-pan popular writer.  He has a depth of thought that only comes with time and experience.

This made even more sense when I got to the author's note included at the end of the book.  There, he reveals the journey Beautiful Ruins took.  He spent fifteen years working out this particular novel, working and reworking until he was satisfied. There is a lesson in there somewhere about the necessity of revision for authors.

The book is not perfect.  The inclusion of some "real life" movies stars such as Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor felt a bit forced.  At times, especially early on, the story can seem scattered or shallow.  Overall, though, I understand why was recommended by so many this summer.  It is both enjoyable and worthwhile.

Pages: 337
Date Completed: October 6, 2013

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