I thought the name Jess Walter sounded familiar, but it wasn’t till I looked at some after-notes in Beautiful Ruins, that I realized he was responsible for a disappointing experience I had last year with his The Financial Lives of Poets. I picked up the recommendation for Beautiful Ruins from NPR, to whom I will be forever grateful for guiding me to The Signature of All things. My thanks for the Ruins tip doesn’t run to the eternal, but this was far from the wasted effort of Poets.
The premise is fascinating. There’s a little fishing village on the Italian Riveria, jammed into a rocky cleft, a cleft so small there’s barely room for a dock, let alone the beach Pasquale’s trying to build to improve business at the three-room family hotel. It’s a a Sisyphian task, the sea washing away the sand almost as soon as Pasquale tries to build it.
It’s 1962. In sails a gorgeous American actress with stomach cancer to book a room at the inn.
Meanwhile, back in Hollywood, in the present, Claire Silver, assistant to famed producer Michael Deane, is seeking a way out of her job and her relationship with her boy friend. Meanwhile, up in Portland, OR, Shane Wheeler is preparing a pitch he’s scheduled to deliver to Claire later in the day.
Meanwhile, back in 1962, Burton and Taylor are filming Cleopatra in Rome, and soon-to-be-famous Michael Deane is trying to handle a swarm of publicity problems.
We dear readers find ourselves aswirl in characters and plot lines so numerous and laden with implications that it’s a wonder we can keep them straight. But Walter skillfully guides from one character and one era to another so that there’s nary a moment of confusion. There are, however, myriad moments of focusing and unfocusing, which interrupts what some call that fictive dream–the one that keeps us immersed in the story from which an author pulls us at the peril of his or her artistic work.
That’s the trouble with Ruins. It doesn’t ruin the book. There’s so much humor, so many people to love and hate and care about, that you could never give up on the this novel. And he takes some chances. The montage of “endings” at the end is highly unconventional and almost (but not quite) works.
So, credit to you Jess Walter. You can write. I just wish hadn’t wandered so very much.