Tuesday, June 12, 2012

book review: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

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

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Beautiful Ruins from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

14 comments:

  1. Definitely plan to read this one; glad u enjoyed it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Diane, I'll look forward to your review!

      Delete
  2. I *just* saw this one highlighted somewhere -- Shelf Awareness, maybe? -- and now I'm esp excited given your review. I love split story lines if done well and I'm intrigued by the way you described in this one -- so adding this to the TBR!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Audra, I think you'd enjoy this one. It was such an unexpected novel.

      Delete
  3. This one hasn't appealed to me, but I remember wanting to read The Financial Lives of Poets and I had no idea this was written by the same author. My eyebrow just went up.

    I'm okay with the fact that the story took awhile to take off. As long as they were a payoff of some sort, I am okay with a slow start.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ti, I was continually amazed it was the same author. I'm awed by authors who can write such different books. There was definitely a pay off for me. Once the book got going, I thought it would be a solid 4-star read, but the last parts really upped the ante. I'll be curious to see if you read this one!

      Delete
  4. I was worried that this one might be different, because I really liked the Financial Lives too... This does sound good, but because it is different I think I'm going to try The Zero of his next and then go to this one. But I'll still look forward to reading this!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Jenny, I'll look forward to your thoughts on The Zero. I'm eager to read more of his backlist now!

      Delete
  5. Good to know that it takes a bit to get invested in the story. It sounds like there's a lot going on, and I like the idea that it incorporates different storytelling elements.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Anna, I loved the different elements. They provided great layers and depth to the story and kept me on my toes!

      Delete
  6. I just finished this today and I was also more and more impressed by the structure as the novel built. I love Alvis' book chapter the most.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree about liking the structure more as the novel progressed. I also adored the chapter Alvis wrote. It was a turning point in the novel for me and really upped the ante of the narrative.

      Delete
  7. ahh - can't wait to read this one. I LOVED Financial Lives of Poets! Thanks for including the quotes - they are great!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Colleen--I'll be curious to hear what you think of Beautiful Ruins. It's so different than Financial Lives of Poets, but I ended up liking it more.

      Delete

Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!