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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Beautiful Ruins: "Stories Are People"


Jess Walter's sixth novel, Beautiful Ruins, is a story about regret, missed opportunities, and the often-absurdity of the movie business. It's also a story — told in Walter's signature hip, precise prose — about how lives are stories. But let's let Walter explain, as he has one character tell another:
"Stories are people. I'm a story, you're a story ... your father is a story. Our stories go in every direction, but sometimes, if we're lucky, our stories join into one, and for a while, we're less alone."
That's just a wonderful notion, both of fiction and of real life, isn't it? So in this novel, we jump back and forth in time, from a small and dying fishing town on the Italian coast in 1962 to modern Hollywood to 1970s Seattle and even to modern London. Snippets of story connect a cast of characters, who are all, themselves, connected in ways they may not be aware of, or may not want to admit.

During the shooting of the movie Cleopatra in Rome in 1962, Richard Burton and Liz Taylor carry on a torrid love affair. And it's the responsibility of one Michael Deane, a young producer, to make sure the over-budget beast of a movie gets back on track. Pasquale, a young 20s Italian, is entranced with a beautiful American actress named Dee who almost literally washes up on the shore of his small village. And then, in modern times, late 20s Claire, armed with fancy film degrees and working for a now 70-something Deane, struggles with the age-old question of good film vs. popular dreck.

In addition to the fascinating stories of these characters, and the even more fascinating ways they connect, we even get snippets of Deane's biography, a first chapter of a novel by a failed writer who vacations at Pasquale's Italian hotel, and an entire pitch for a film called Donner! by another failed writer hoping for one last chance at stardom. Normally, this kind of almost gimmicky storytelling is kind of annoying — you just want the writer to get on with the story, not distract us with these sideshows. But not here. Each of these DeLillo-like strains actually enhances the core story — giving an indication of how the connections will come to pass. And when they do — at the emotional conclusion — you're left in awe.

The only bad thing I'll say about this novel is that the title isn't exactly catchy. Even with the striking cover image, the title's just a bit too precious — a silly oxymoron that more turns you away instead of brings you in. But by way of explanation: "Beautiful Ruins" is derived from a 2010 New Yorker article about Richard Burton — "Burton, fifty-four at the time, and already a beautiful ruin, was mesmerizing." This is one of three quotes that make up the novel's epigraph.

With Beautiful Ruins, Walter again expands his scope — he's done crime drama, 9/11, and pseudo-dude lit. This is possibly his most "literary" novel — whatever that means. It's not my favorite novel of his — that's still a tie between The Zero and The Financial Lives of the Poets. But this is still a stunningly good read. Four stars - highly recommended. 

12 comments:

  1. I haven't read any Jess Walter before but I really like the passage you quoted a lot. I'll be keeping my eye out for this one!

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    1. Do it! I think you'd like this, but I think you'd REALLY like The Financial Lives of the Poets.

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  2. Read this book awhile ago and I consider it one of the best of the year.

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  3. I really enjoyed this one as well. I think I'm going to like Financial Lives of the Poets better though. I was hoping for more humor. The Donner! Chapter was quite funny.

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    1. Yes, TFLOTP is about 10 times funnier than this one is. But you're right, the Donner! chapter was funny and cheesy and tragic all at the same time.

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  4. Is this your favorite jess Walter novel? I haven't read him yet but this one looks good. Will get it

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    1. I think The Financial Lives of the Poets is my favorite, actually. But this is close. It's hard to say because his novels are so different.

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  5. "DeLillo-like strains" - great line, there. I haven't read any of Walter, though I've had my eye on this one recently. Sounds like maybe I should start with The Zero or The Financial Lives of the Poets though?

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    1. Thanks - spending a month (and counting) with Underworld means I've had DeLillo on the mind a lot lately. I'd suggest TFLOEP - it's a bet less heavy... (The Zero's very, very good - but it's about 9/11.)

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  6. I read Beautiful Ruins largely on the basis of your review. I had not read anything by Walter and I really didn't know what to expect from his writing style. I finished the book yesterday and I can't stop thinking about it. I have seen it compared to Gone Girl, which I also read and loved this summer, but honestly, there's no comparison with the emotional resonance of Beautiful Ruins. The cast of characters in this book is breathtakingly fascinating and Walter's narrative structure perfectly complements them. By the end, I couldn't stop reading and I didn't want it to end. Favorite book of the year. Time to go read something else by Walter...

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  7. I have never read any of this authors books in the past, but I can say with this book that the plot was quite engaging and gripping. You start reading and are kept from page one to the very end. The author does a good job at developing her characters and making you truly imagine and picture the desolate remote island where the story is set. The Asylum where the main character was sent is vastly different than what you normally expect, but saying that, the author makes the venue come alive and the relationships between the characters tangible. This was a great book that all should read!

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