The backstory: Two years ago I read and enjoyed The Financial Lives of Poets by Jess Walter (my review.) When I was at the American Library Association's Midwinter conference in January, the fantastic ladies of Harper Collins' library marketing department alerted me to this new novel, which is dramatically different from The Financial Lives of Poets.
The basics: Spanning from Italy in the 1960's to present day Los Angeles, the story in Beautiful Ruins begins on the film set of Cleopatra in Rome. Young American actress Dee Moray arrives at the isolated Italian city of Portovergogna and at The Hotel Adequate View, a small inn run by Pasquale, a young Italian man whose father has just died. Fast forward fifty years to Los Angeles and Claire is a production assistant for Michael Deane, an aging Hollywood producer.
My thoughts: It would be too simple to say this novel gets better the farther you get in it, but that is partially true. As it did in The Financial Lives of Poets, Walter's writing captivated me from the first pages, and I was highlighting quotations at least every five pages. One of my early favorites is: "We live in a world of banal miracles."
While I enjoyed the story from the beginning, I didn't love it initially, even though Walter's quotable wisdom was enchanting. I was more fascinated by the story in the 1960's than the present day, and I thought Walter was telling two disparate stories. The more I read, however, the more enamored I became with the non-linear structure. I soon realized how entwined these stories were in so many ways. Rather than stick to alternating chapters of the past and present, Walter keeps readers on their toes by infusing movie pitches, a short story, a chapter from a memoir, and part of a play, as well as jumping around through time. The result is a stunning achievement: it's a complex story told in a straight-forward, yet non-linear way. It's complex and simple at the same time, and by the mid-way point, I could not put this novel down.
Favorite passage: "Weren’t movies his generation’s faith anyway--its true religion? Wasn’t the theater our temple, the one place we enter separately but emerg from two hours later together, with the same experience, same guided emotions, same moral?
The verdict: While Walter's writing shines throughout this novel, the story does take some time to truly take flight. This novel is one both serious and casual readers will enjoy.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 352 pages
Publication date: June 12, 2012
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
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