A Book in Review: Beautiful Ruins

Thursday, October 2, 2014

As I mentioned here, I bought Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter on a whim in the MSP airport for nothing but its eye-catching cover. I had also heard rumors (mainly surrounding his book of short stories, We Live in Water) that Walter is a compelling writer. After reading, I agree! I enjoyed his writing style and reflections on humanity. It's the multiple plot lines that left me feeling a little less than satisfied.

But let me take a step back to indulge in a personal tangent to explain my attraction to the cover: I've always been kind of subconsciously obsessed with Italy. I had a ton of Italian classmates growing up, and they were always having big, fun family get-togethers with delicious food. My (small) town even had an annual summer Italian festival with red, white, and green fireworks! I distinctly remember doing a "what's your nationalities?" project and being one of the only kids in the class who wasn't even an ounce Italian! Third grade is so unfair.

Flash forward 15 or so years (note: each of those years was also unfair ;). My boyfriend, Stephen, is Italian and went to Italy five or so years ago with his family. He still regularly raves about the Amalfi Coast! So, I figured if a book took me there for a while, I wouldn't be mad.

Here's a newly-framed map hanging in our apartment to prove my Italy adoration.
And Beautiful Ruins did allow me to escape into very different worlds than the one I live in. It opens back in 1962 in a tiny town south of Cinque Terra with an unlikely encounter between Pasquale Tursi, an unassuming, but handsome Italian man, and Dee Moray, a dying American actress. The scene is beautiful and memorable; it really hooks you in effectively. (I read the author's notes post-book, and he said he actually thinks he re-wrote the first sentence of the book about 300 times! 300!)

My favorite passage from that scene
From there it explores many different story lines in many different settings - from modern-day Hollywood (where we meet producer Michael Deane and assistant Claire) to World War 2  in Italy (where we meet Alvis Bender) to old-time Hollywood in Italy (Dee, Pasquale, and old-time Michael), and the list goes on. Walter creatively plays with time throughout the book. You know the endings of characters before their beginnings, you find out someone died then meet them chapters later, and so on. This book is not chronological!

It was very pleasant to read next to Lake Mendota with an Oberon
The story-telling voices change with the settings. You're suddenly reading the first chapter of Alvis's book, a script Dee is rehearsing, a rejected excerpt Michael's book. It certainly keeps things interesting, but, call me old-fashioned, I generally like to curl up with a book and just hang out with one fascinating person for a while. Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye, Charlie from Perks of Being a Wallflower, etc. (And yes, based on those examples, it's safe to conclude I mainly like hanging out with troubled teenage boys. They get me.)

I just didn't feel that connected with any of the cast in Beautiful Ruins. Probably because there were so many, in so many places, over so many time periods, telling their stories in so many ways. It took Walters 15 years to write this book (15 years!), so I can understand how he wanted to experiment with different story-telling methods over that time. (For comparison, his The Financial Life of Poets took him ~10 months.)

I felt naturally more interested in some character than others (thought Claire deserved more time, thought Alvis had too much) - so when I got halfway through and we were being introduced to another person and setting (Struggling musician slash recovering addict? We're going to Seattle and then the UK?) I just felt a little jostled.

Helen Schulman in this New York Times Book Review raves about the book, calling it a "high-wire feat of bravura storytelling" and Walter "a talented and original writer." I don't disagree with the latter claim. Walter includes thought-provoking, relatable insights throughout the book - coining life a "glorious catastrophe," positing that American faces always have "that openness, that stubborn belief in possibility, a quality that...even the youngest Italians lacked," and so on.

I particularly enjoyed a passage where Pasquale's mother claims that happiness happens when your desires and what's right align, so it behooves you to work on closing that gap. Different approaches to the ever-allusive "happiness" intrigue me.

If you're into multiple plots across multiple time periods told in several different voices, then it's right up your alley. Since that's not my cup of tea, I give it 3.5 out of 5 stars on my newly born unscientific randomly made-up ranking system. (How legit does that sound?) Still a solid read, just not a personal fave. Let me know if you want to borrow my copy! And if you do read it or have already read it, I'd love to hear your opinion. I think I'm going to tackle another memoir next - I truly appreciate all of the recommendations I received!

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed this book because I love travleing in Italy but I agree I was definitely more interested in some characters than others