Sunday, March 2, 2014

Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter

Beautiful Ruins begins when an American actress who believes she is dying of cancer shows up in an Italian fishing village on the Ligurian Sea. That actress--Dee Moray (nee Debra Moore)--has fled from the set of the ill-fated film Cleopatra, in which she has a small role. She has gotten in the way of assistant producer Michael Deane's plan to use the Burton-Taylor affair to get free publicity for what he knows is going to be a terrible movie--and he decides to get her out of the way while he manages the situation. She lands at the tiny Hotel Adequate View, run by Pasquale Tursi, who has dropped out of college to take over the hotel following his father's death. Dee dreams of being a star and marrying Richard Burton, Michael dreams of being a big-time Hollywood producer, and Pasquale dreams of building a tennis court into the side of the cliff above the village.

The novel follows Dee, Michael, Pasquale, and a host of other characters over the course of the next 50 years, bouncing back and forth between 1962, the present, and points in between (with a detour to the mid-1800s for a film treatment about the Donner Party, aptly titled Donner!).  While most of the action takes place in Hollywood and Italy, there are side trips to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and northern Idaho. Most of the book is told in straightforward narrative, but Walter has also inserted "documents"--the treatment for Donner!,  an excerpt from Deane's unpublished memoir, a play script, a chapter of a novel written by a WWII veteran who visits Hotel Adequate View every year.

Beautiful Ruins is about celebrity and what happens when you turn your back on a dream and do what's right (the outcome isn't the same for everyone who makes that choice). It's also about the possibility of change and of enduring. Some parts of the story are engaging, as are some characters. However, the novel felt too short to do justice to the number of charactersWalter suggests are important --perhaps if the novel were longer, we wouldn't need the rather graceless "and here's what happened to everybody" chapter at the end. Some space might have been saved by trimming the "documents" Walter included. While I liked the idea of the documents, in reality they didn't serve the story particularly well.  Beautiful Ruins feels like a lot of unfulfilled potential,

Favorite passage:
. . .  it's a minefield of courtesies and manners, this dying business.

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