Thursday, December 5, 2013

"Beautiful Ruins" by Jess Walter

This is one of those books that make me want to give up writing in despair of ever creating anything that comes close to this kind of mastery.  I'm not saying this is a great book, mind you.  But it's written very, very well, and I admire that.

Jess Walter intertwines the lives of four protagonists and several lesser characters, allowing their connected stories to unfold slowly and not particularly linearly.  Pieces of the puzzle fall into their places at different moments, so that by the end of the book, you have the whole picture.  But in the middle of the book, that picture is very fragmented, and I spent quite a bit of time wondering how it would all mesh.  

Here is the basic story:  In the early 1960s, while Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor are filming Cleopatra in Italy, a young actress called Dee Moray leaves the production and ends up at a very small hotel in a very small Italian town.  The hotel's owner, Pasquale, falls a little bit in love with Dee Moray.  And then a whole bunch of stuff happens.  The rest of the story takes place in the present, revolving around Dee's son Pat and the way he tries to piece his fractured life back together.  There's also a WWII veteran trying to write a book, a Hollywood producer's assistant longing to make just one good movie, an aspiring screenwriter searching for meaning in his life, and Richard Burton himself playing a small but significant part.

As you can see, it's a little hard to explain.  The story bounces back and forth from the 1960s to the present, and to points in between too.  But it all makes sense in the end, and even ends pretty happily.  I wasn't very hopeful for a happy ending through most of the book, so I was pleasantly surprised.  This is one of those books where all the characters have problems and issues and hang-ups and are very troubled in their own way.  None of them are very happy through most of the book, and I have to admit the book as a whole is a little too depressing for me to want to read it again.

Particularly Good Bits:

He had never really mastered English, but he'd studied enough to have a healthy fear of its random severity, the senseless brutality of its conjugations; it was unpredictable, like a cross-bred dog (p. 9).

Weren't movies his generation's faith anyway -- its true religion?  Wasn't the hteater our temple, the one place we enter separately but emerge from two hours later together, with the same experience, same guided emotions, same moral? (p. 21).

It was curious what trying to speak English had done lately to his mind; it reminded him of studying poetry in college, words gaining and losing their meaning, overlapping with images, the curious echo of ideas behind the words people used (p. 112).

What if the only way to save the ones you love... is to leave them behind? (p. 126).

People can handle an unjust world; it's when the world becomes arbitrary and inexplicable that order breaks down (p. 148).

This is what happens when you live in dreams, he thought:  you dream this and you dream that and you sleep right through your life (p. 218).

We want what we want.  At home, she works herself into a frenzy worrying about what she isn't -- and perhaps loses track of just where she is (p. 301).

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  R for sexual situations, drug use, adult dialog, and language.

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