Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Review: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

By Jess Walter
Harper. 352 pp. $25.99.

Jess Walters audacious new novel spans fifty years and two continents. It includes an excerpt from the unpublished memoir of one of the main characters, a movie pitch by another character, a chapter of a novel by a third, and part of a play. Does it sound like a train wreck of experimental/post-modern literature? Fortunately, it is far from that. These “experimental” elements are expertly woven into a more traditional, beautifully-told story. Far from detracting from the momentum and action of the story, they serve to give context to many of the events, as well as the motivations of the characters.

What are the events of the novel? That is a harder question. In 1962, Pasquale Tursi is a second- generation hotelier on the Ligurian Sea in Italy when an American actress arrives at his hotel. Dee Moray was working on the production of Cleopatra when she became “ill.” She is lethargic, nauseated and otherwise unwell. At first, Pasquale and others—even Dee herself—is told that she has cancer, but, in fact, a doctor was convinced to lie; the explanation turns out to much simpler: she's pregnant. Of course the question is: what was the purpose of this lie and who is behind it?

In present day Hollywood, Claire Silver, production assistant to no-longer-very-successful producer Michael Deane, is trying to leave for the day when she is confronted by two men: Pasquale and Shane Wheeler, an aspiring screenwriter. Both have one of Michael's business cards, which he signs and distributes with promises of potential future favors. Claire quickly deduces that Shane wants to pitch his movie, but what is Pasquale doing there? Simple: He fell in love with Dee during her stay at his penione and has now, years later, come to seek her out.

The novel primarily bounces back and forth between the two stories, but adds a few others along the way. In Italy, the reason behind the lie about Dee's condition is revealed. Although, some reviews have given away this “big reveal,” I will not do that. In retrospect, it should not have been as shocking to me as it was at the time; there were enough clues. Still, the discovery was too enjoyable to “spoil.” In Hollywood, Pasquale is able to give Claire some background on her boss; she had no clue that he had begun his career in the movies in publicity.

Walter's storytelling and prose alternates as the time periods alternate. The scenes in Italy are slow and descriptive; the scenes in Hollywood are faster paced, with action over language. Some of the best moments of the novel have Pasquale planning to carve tennis courts into the rock walls behind his hotel, merely so guests could play facing the sea; he doesn't consider the logistical complications of balls flying off the edge or the cost of building. He is wonderfully innocent, but still has a vision. Equally beautiful is when Pasquale takes Dee to an old machine gun turret on the cliffs above the sea, where soldiers painted pictures.

All of the characters in Beautiful Ruins are hiding something, whether they know it or not. Indeed, the novel is permeated in secrets and mystery. Walter's brilliance is that he is able to make use of these elements without them taking over. It is a page tuner, and yet you will want to pause to take in the beautiful writing. Furthermore, this is a story where characters matter most. And what a cast it is! Besides, Pasquale, Dee, Claire, Shane and Michael, there is also Alvis Bender, a novelist who returns to Italy year after year, ostensibly to work on a novel, but merely rewrites a single chapter again and again and his son Pat, a struggling punk-rocker. It is a joy to see how all of these disparate characters come together.

Beautiful Ruins is the best kind of summer read: intelligent, engaging, unexpected and just plain fun. It is part commentary on modern-day Hollywood and how movies get made; part love story; part mystery. Walter's makes use of non-traditional storytelling elements, but they never feel forced or like he is showing off. It's a masterful and satisfying novel.

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