By Sherry Evans, Portsmouth Public Library
At the top of the New York Times paperback best sellers list in June 2013, Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter, weaves an intricate tale of star crossed lovers, failed authors, Italian fisherman, rock-star wannabes, actors and much, much more. And I wanted to love it; in fact, I did enjoy it for a while. It’s a mystery. It’s a romance. But it’s overly clever, with overdone plotting and it’s much too long. I can see it being made into a soap opera or a serialized television drama.
SCENE: Italy, 1962, a remote fishing village accessible only by boat, Porto Vergogna. Young Pasquale Tursi, called home from Rome to care for his frail mother, tries to keep afloat his Dad’s dream villa, The Hotel Adequate View. It’s a lovely place but competes for guests with other larger, coastal towns, and is often empty of paying customers. Pasquale frets, just as his Dad did, even as he strategizes about building a tennis court upon the ledges. In his mind, build a tennis court and Americans will come. He also spends his days making a beach which each night is washed away by the waves.
Into the quirky, idyllic scene, comes Dee Moray, a gorgeous, American actress. She is very ill and has come to rest in Porto Vergogna, fresh from the set of Cleopatra. Predictably, Pasquale falls in love with her and becomes involved in her sordid, Hollywood story. And this is where the scoundrel Richard Burton enters, all blustery and blowsy. Picture him arriving by fishing boat in a drunken state.
The book is written in multiple, alternating settings and time periods – moving from Italy to Hollywood to Oregon to Idaho to Scotland and 1962 to ‘recently’ to 1978 to 2006 to 2008. Yes, it is confusing and frustrating at times. Where are we? Who’s talking? Is the character old or young? Paragraphs end abruptly, in a cliff-hanger, as we jump to another plot, character and time period. Flow charts would have been helpful; a list of characters and locations as well.
Chapter 8, April 1962, Rome, Italy, ends like this:
He felt a hand on his shoulder just then. Pasquale turned. It was a woman, the interpreter who had moved down the line of centurion extras earlier in the day.
‘You’re the man who knows where Dee is? she asked in Italian.
’‘Yes,’ Pasquale said.The woman looked around and then squeezed Pasquale’s arm.
‘Please. Come with me. There is someone who would like very much to talk to you.”
Chapter 9 and we are back to ‘recently’ in Universal City, California which begins with a chapter from a book that was never published by the shameless, Hollywood producer Michael Deane, a villainous character if ever there was one.
I think I must be an old-fashioned reader, because if an author has to use so many conventions to keep us reading, how good is the story? Chapter 4 (April 1945, Near La Spezia, Italy) is a different chapter from a different unpublished book. And as soon as we finish that we are back to ‘recently’ in Hollywood Hills, California. Phew. And since I am on a roll here, early on we meet Shane Wheeler (and unfortunately, learn his life story in minute detail) who has failed at everything he has ever attempted (marriage, fatherhood, work, etc.) but has managed to secure an appointment with chief development assistant to Michael Deane, Claire Silver, to ‘pitch’ his screenplay called DONNER! Yes, a screenplay about the Donner Party who in the fall of 1846 unsuccessfully attempted to cross the Donner Pass in California. Everyone knows how these poor people fared. Close to the end of Beautiful Ruins, as many of the threads are tying up, the author begins to call a group of folks (still searching for the long-lost actress Dee Moray) the Deane Party. Really? What are we to infer from this? Cannibalism makes a come back?
Characters fall into dalliances with each other, babies are born out of wedlock, the devastating disease of cancer strikes, adorable fisherman trade crusty quips, people die in tragic accidents, World War II is examined, Hollywood reality shows are dissected, bad boy drug-abusing musicians play a major role, Italian aunts spew curses, long-suffering mothers and girlfriends remain strong and loyal despite cheating husbands and boyfriends. Into the milieu: Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher and Richard Burton.
My biggest beef, however, was the last chapter, called ‘Beautiful Ruins’ which went on for a grueling, densely worded eleven pages. Here the author sums it all up, every last nuance of the story until we, the reader, are screaming…..’Just end it.’ Agatha Christie did this so much better in her mysteries, where it was necessary to ruse out the murderer in the drawing room. In Beautiful Ruins (the book) a few simple words would have sufficed. We are, after all, thoughtful, intelligent readers who do not need every last detail spelled out for us.
A different reader might have wept at the ending. Lovers reuniting and all that (and I am not giving anything away here; there are many couples in the book) but by then I was just bored. Head to the beach my reading friends! And take this novel, just out in paperback, with you. Read it and then throw it in the ocean. Actually, that’s wasteful. Better to surreptitiously leave it on a table at one of Portsmouth’s wonderful coffee shops. There is much to enjoy in Beautiful Ruins, but the parts to do not make up a stellar whole.
Beautiful Ruins won numerous awards including Best Fiction Books: Editors Choice (2012) from Booklist, Library Journal Best Books (2012) and New York Times Notable Books (2012) in the fiction and poetry category. Walter’s 2005 novel, Citizen Vance, won the Edgar Allen Poe (The Edgars) award for mystery fiction.
Published in the Portsmouth Sunday Herald on June 9, 2013