Beautiful Ruins took Jess Walter fifteen years to write.
It’s encouraging to think that patience, hard work and self belief will get you there in the end. And not hard to see where the time went, in this beautiful, intricately plotted satire.
Beautiful Ruins has been recommended on many different blogs I have been on. I’ve seen it described as “difficult to describe” and “not what I expected.”
I was expecting from the blurb and from the reviews I’d read in the papers for this to be some kind of exotic holiday romance. Which is where it starts. A young starlet, Dee Moray, arrives at a hotel on the Italian coast, run by Pasquale. She is working on the set of Cleopatra, starring Liz Taylor and Richard Burton produced by Michael . Pasquale lives with his aunt and ailing mother, and is troubled by the local extortion gangs. He and Dee form a connection.
In the present day, idealistic Claire is working as a production assistant for the aging Michael in his twilight working years.
The story flicks back and forth between the two eras, and the general narrative drive is in unravelling the mystery of what Dee is doing in Italy, who she is pining for, and what has been done to her. Dee also exists in the present. We see her journey years later, as we do Pascale’s and Michael, in coming to terms with and making peace with their collective past.
When I describe the narrative drive as being “general”, I am being more specific than general in my own description. I did feel that the book made me work hard! This is an ensemble piece of a book, and I think that ensemble style of writing has slightly gone out of fashion. I do feel that in recent years, there has been a drive towards simpler, direct narratives, which financially nervous publishers and writers feel will grab the attention of the audience. When I read a novel, often I am mapping out the narrative arcs in my head and fitting the various elements into place: the moment of change at the beginning, the protagonist’s greatest desire, the obstacles, all that stuff. And to be honest, with so much that I want to read and experience, latching onto that shorthand helps me speed read my way around to where I want to be.
You can’t really do that with Beautiful Ruins! You do have to pay more attention, with the lack of clarity, the different, biased, perspectives and well, just the movement from one perspective to another! A lot of time and feeling is lavished on these characters. I really liked Claire. I suppose I identified with her the most. Modern working girl, frustrated by those around her, but lacking the commercialism to become a driving force and therefore be in a position to dictate her own terms. (Oh dear do I really want to identify with this person after all?) Pascale and Dee I felt more detached about at first, although I warmed later on to Dee, when she was living more of a “real life”. That’s the striking thing about this book – the 1960s part is all sun drenched and glamour and slightly inaccessible emotionally, in contrast to the later years. I thought this was a clever illustration of how life really is. When we are younger, maybe we do tend to want to see things in a more romantic and idealistic light.
The best part of the book was about three quarters of the way through, when the “explanation” of the “mystery” was revealed. This was to me a bit of a Usual Suspects moment – until the end of that film, I had not even been able to work out what the mystery was, never mind the answer to it. Until the reveal of Beautiful Ruins, it was as if the shape of the plot had been cloaked, rather like Dee in the floaty white dress that Pascale is so fond of remembering her in. But the angles of the narrative arc did become much clearer after that point and it was a pretty impressive feat of plotting.
To me this book was about growing up, growing old. Some of the characters, like Michael Deane, with his scary plastic surgery, con themselves into thinking that you can make yourself what you imagine you are. Some of them, like Claire, are what you would call old before their time. But growing up and old is not merely about getting past adolescence, but getting past that stage in our heads where life shifts away from imagining what your life is going to be, and what other people’s lives are, and more towards reality.
Read this book if you want to find out what happens to beautiful heroines in the Ever After.