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Thursday, January 17, 2013

What I'm Reading: Beautiful Ruins

The first book I finished in 2013 was one of the consensus Best Books picks for 2012.  In fact, I had first heard about Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter at the PLA Conference back in March 2012, where I picked up an advanced reader copy.  Over Christmas break I grabbed that paperback ARC to take on the plane.

I was skeptical before beginning the novel since the sound bite description always begins with talking about the filming of Cleopatra starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.  Although I enjoyed the movie myself, I am not a huge fan of stories of celebrity couples.  But then I saw that Esquire named it their book of the year, and from years of reading my husband's issues of that magazine I know that they do not put up with wishy-washy; something I was worried this book might be. Their seal of approval pushed it to the top of the to-read list.

I am glad I read it.  Beautiful Ruins would not have made my best of 2012 list if I had finished it before the calendar flipped over, but it was a very satisfying and interesting read.  But more importantly, this is a book I can see myself handing out to a wide range of patrons for many years to come, mostly because it is not often that you find intricately plotted (yet very accessible), character driven literary fiction that has an overall upbeat tone.

Let me start with the basic plot and then go into the construction of the story because Walter’s novel is more about how he chose to reveal the story to us than it is about what happens.

The novel opens in a remote, Italian fishing village with the arrival of a beautiful American actress who has been diagnosed with stomach cancer.  It is the early 1960s and this actress was playing a supporting role in Cleopatra.  We see everything in 1960s Italy through the eyes of Pasquale, a young man who is running the only hotel.

There is another parallel storyline in the present which follows a young woman who is the assistant for a big time Hollywood producer, the same producer whose first job was working on Cleopatra.  This young woman is at a cross roads in her career as the story opens because her boss, the great Michael Deane, is no longer making important films as she was hoping he would when she took the job.  No, instead now her days are filled with bad reality TV and zombie flicks.

These two stories unfold in alternating sections.  We learn quickly however that the main tension of the novel is to find out what happened to the young American actress once she disappeared from Italy bqck in the 1960s.  And because the story lines alternate, we, the readers, often know more than the characters, which draws out the suspense and pushes the novel along.

Walter also uses different stylistic techniques to keep the story moving such as including a pitch presentation for a film version of the Donner party.  [It was a fun tangent to go on; it also helped to flesh out the character who wrote it.] There is also a first chapter of another key character's book included within the novel and chunks of a play.

But it is all leading toward the end of finding the actress and allowing all of the parties involved in her disappearance to come together again. Thus, themes of regret and redemption are huge here.  Many of the characters make bad choices, but they all get the chance to revisit those choices and try to make right on them.  Which is what I mean when I say the entire book has an upbeat tone.  Some characters meet a not so great end, but most get the chance to right old wrongs.

Speaking of characters, they are also key to whether or not you will enjoy the story.  Personally, I loved Pasquale.  He felt so very real to me, both in the story line where he is a young man, and later as he is older.  I also found the people of his town entertaining and amusing.

Not all of the characters are as well drawn as Pasquale, in my opinion (which is why the book was good, not great, for me), but it is the characters, their choices, and their reactions which drives the story here.  The “action” is in their interactions. Normally such a character driven story would be more methodically paced, but because of the stylistic choices I outlined above, Walter manages to keep the story moving at a fairly brisk pace.  I read most of it in 2 sittings, and during that final sitting, on the plane ride home, I was racing through to get to the end.

Another reasons readers may enjoy Beautiful Ruins is the setting. The small Italian port is gorgeous.  My time spent there was the best part of the story for me. We also get to see a little of the filming of Cleopatra and a small peek into Hollywood today too. 

Finally, the title.  Beautiful Ruins was taken from a quote in the New Yorker (listed at the beginning of the book) in which Richard Burton is described as a “beautiful ruin.” 

Three Words That Describe This Book: intricately plotted, character driven, upbeat

Readalikes: Beautiful Ruins is a novel that would appeal to different people for different reasons, so here is a long, conditional list of readalikes.

If you liked the Italian setting try The Love of My Youth by Mary Gordon which is a novel about a couple reuniting after 40 years apart, in Italy, to reminisce about the summer they spent together in that country and the betrayal that tore them apart.

If you liked the Hollywood angle to the story try another critically acclaimed novel from 2012 that focuses on the golden-age of Hollywood, Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures by Emma Straub.

If you liked the music industry part and or the mix of styles in how the story is told and the episodic fashion A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan is an excellent readalike option.

If you liked the upbeat, character driven story with a focus on love try One Day by David Nicholls.

If you liked the theme of unrequited love told in a critically acclaimed, literary fiction style try The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides or Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami.

If you want to read nonfiction about the tumultuous love between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, read Furious Love by Sam Kashner

Finally if you liked reading an intricately plotted literary novel, with an interesting style that has an overall sunny tone, well there are not many of those, but Where'd You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple (reviewed by me, here) fits that bill nicely.  But read my review because Semple's book is more silly at times than Walter's.

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