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Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

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.

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10 Comments

  1. I love books that make you work for it. Running thoughts over and over, up and down along each sentence. Just love it.

    • I am more shallow than that… but I guess it’s fast food as opposed to a proper meal. I did appreciate the book in the end even though I wasn’t immediately hooked

  2. I love books like the one you describe. I am going to read it. I love stories about people working their way through their lives. The back and forth between the different parts of their lives-I am a sap for that and although this book seems to have a little nostalgia, not a lot (the way you explain it), I think it will fit my mood right now.
    Thanks, as usual, for your introducing me to new things.

    • Yes it was satisfying from that point of view, portraying the characters’ long term development made it feel “complete”.

  3. Great review! Makes me want to reread it 🙂

    Plus, love that cover! Mine was that standard picturesque Italian coastal village one. This one plays to its 1960s narrative well.

    • Yes, it’s a clever cover.

      Funny, when I was researching Do I want to read this, yours was one of the reviews I came across. A lot of the Amazon reviews were not that positive. I’m glad I sought a second opinion!

  4. Ater reading this great review, and so in-depth, I’ve come to the conclusion that I must be very shallow indeed as what really jumped out at me was your mention of that very wonderful film The Usual Suspects. I love how you described that you had to wait until the very ending before you could even figure out the mystery never mind what the answer was! I’ve seen that film several times and still love it even though the mystery is no longer a mystery!
    I digress..all in all, if this book made you work hard then I’m not sure I would read it because I am too lazy. I tried to read Wolf Hall and as much as I adore anything and everything to do with the Tudor reign I couldn’t get on with it at all.
    Still, Beautiful Ruins does sound really interesting, and I do love the title…

    • Yeah, The Usual Suspects was so good. Someone put it on one day at Uni and said this is is good, watch this. I had never seen anything like it before. Brings back nostalgic memories.

  5. This book was totally fantastic. And you’re right about all of it. Excellent review as always. I share your uneasiness about relating to Claire.

    I’m reading Chris Cleave’s Gold right now (I love Chris Cleave) and it’s also a kind of ensemble narrative that makes you work to put it all together. I find that I’m enjoying this style right now and that I seem to be reading more books like this. I wonder if I’m seeking it out because I enjoy it or they are finding me?

    I think they are making a movie out to this one actually. Could be great.

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