Sunday, August 16, 2015

Staff Review: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
After hearing so many glowing reviews of the 2012 novel Beautiful Ruins from library patrons and friends and reading rave reviews in the media ("a literary miracle,” says NPR; a “masterpiece,” says Salon, “superb,” “brilliant,” “near-perfect,” “genius,” and so on), I decided I’d better check it out for myself.

And while I didn’t completely incandesce as I read the book, I’m really glad I read or, rather, listened to it. The audio version is so well-done; it was’s Best Audiobook of 2012. Performed by Edoardo Ballerini, whose Italian and English are flawless, the audiobook navigates its way through all sorts of accents and a multiplicity of characters of all ages in such a fluid way it’s transporting.

Hmmmm, how to summarize the plot? Jess Walter worked on this book for years and years and completed other novels during its construction. His architectural diligence shows: Beautiful Ruins is a marvel of literary engineering, with a whole lot of story threads running through multiple locations over 50 years, intersecting and interweaving and resolving in such a way that not a thread is dropped. When you reach the final page, the tapestry is complete.

In a nutshell though, the book opens in 1962 on a part of the Italian coast known as the Cinque Terre (click and prepare to gasp). A lovely young actress named Dee Moray disembarks from a boat and enters the life of young innkeeper Pasquale Tursi. Dee has been performing in the scandal-plagued, filming-fiasco Cleopatra, which stars that boozily-tumultuous couple Liz Taylor and Richard Burton.

She has also been ill-treated in a shocking way by the film’s fictional producer, Michael Deane, a hilarious Hollywood grotesque whose decades of facelifts and skin-plumps leave him, at age 72, with “the face of a 9-year-old Filipino girl.” (The book is laugh-out-loud funny in parts.) Pregnant by way of an on-set affair with an actor, Dee has been hoodwinked by a corrupt movie-set doctor. Told she has cancer, she's sent away from the set to have her "growth" removed. The moment she arrives at his inn (the inn's less-than-optimal location within this coastal paradise wins it the name Hotel Adequate View), Pasquale is smitten.

From there we spin from the Cinque Terre to Hollywood, Seattle, London, Edinburgh, Idaho, and Rome -- as well as back and forth through five decades -- to trace the furiously-flawed lives of a host of intersecting characters, one of whom is the future son of our lovely actress. (The father’s name I will not reveal.)

My only minor quibble with the book (and this does not seem to have been an issue for many others) is that I did not equally enjoy all parts of it. Some story-lines are funnier and more absorbing than others, but Beautiful Ruins is gorgeously-written and shines the funniest -- and most unflattering -- light on Hollywood and the twisted minds within its glittering hills who make its crassest films (and its increasingly unsavory reality shows – more of the Duggar family or Honey Boo Boo, anyone?).  The novel is also tender and poignant, intelligent and imaginative, and, best of all, strikingly original. I’ve never read anything quite like it.

~Ann, Adult Services

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