Book review: Beautiful Ruins
IT IS April 1962. A beautiful, dying American actress arrives alone at the fictitious Porto Vergogna on the Italian coast south of Genoa.
She is 22-year-old Dee Moray, fresh off the Roman film set of Cleopatra – the scandal-ridden Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton epic. Soon she captures the attention of Pasquale Tursi, the even younger proprietor of an empty pensione who aspires to turn the village into a resort town and is trying to build a beach by digging the stones out of the inlet by hand.
Are you hooked yet? If you are, you’re going to love this book. It opens like a film; you can almost hear the swelling soundtrack, promising a good old-fashioned, escapist story, even as it is imbued with a knowing – and often hilarious – satirical edge. And it ends like a film, too, with a big helping of tied-up satisfaction. But if you’re not hooked, I bet you’ll like Beautiful Ruins even more – because the surprising and witty novel of social criticism that flows from its lush, romantic opening offers so much more than just entertainment in terms of scope, emotional range and formalist invention.
For example: the second chapter jumps ahead 50 years to present-day Hollywood, well past the golden age of idols like “the whore and husband-thief Elizabeth Taylor” and the alcoholic Burton (who has a great cameo), and smack into the disheartening age of reality TV. Here we meet an ambitious development assistant, Claire Silver, an ex-academic with a porn-addict boyfriend, who is an employee of the legendary (fictional) producer Michael Deane.
Back in 1962, Deane was a fledgling publicist on Cleopatra: his prescient embrace of scandal-as-advertising, he claims, saved the film from financial collapse. He is also the man who sent innocent Dee Moray to Porto Vergogna to rot. This act of heartlessness marked the beginning of an illustrious career, and in the 1970s and 1980s his success as a film producer brought him the title the “Deane of Hollywood,” until his star inevitably fell. Now, he is the producer of a hit reality dating show.
We’ve met characters like Deane before, but it’s wicked fun to meet him here, again: “It may be impossible to trace the sequence of facials, spa treatments, mud baths, cosmetic procedures, lifts and staples, collagen implants, outpatient touch-ups, tannings, Botox injections, cyst and growth removals and stem-cell injections that have caused a 72-year-old man to have the face of a nine-year-old Filipino girl.”
Once a month Deane Productions holds a “Wild Pitch Friday,” which means almost anyone can walk into Claire’s office and try to sell her an idea. Who walks in this Friday? Shane Wheeler, a wannabe screenwriter who is about to successfully pitch a movie. There is also an elderly Italian gentleman – Pasquale, a half-century later, on Californian soil searching once again for answers about the mysterious Dee Moray.
Beautiful Ruins is Walter’s sixth novel. He is a bold and funny American novelist and here has created an epic romance that skilfully blends fact and fiction, with chapters that encompass not just Italy in the 1960s and present-day Hollywood, with plot strands unfolding across the land mines of the last half-century – an American landscape of vice, addiction, loss and heartache, thwarted careers and broken dreams. It is also a novel about love: amorous love, filial love, parental love and the deep, sustaining love of true friendship.
Not all the 21 chapters are strictly narrative. Just as Walter used his protagonist’s own middling poetry to illustrate the insanity of his business venture in his novel The Financial Lives of the Poets (a Web site, Poetfolio.com, in which he linked free verse with financial advice), Walter here throws in dialogue from plays real and invented; the lone chapter of a failed novel from an alcoholic veteran who spends two weeks every summer at the Hotel Adequate View continually rewriting those same pages; and a passage from Michael Deane’s own warts-and-all memoir, where he admits the part he played in cold-bloodedly ruining Dee’s life.
Either racked by guilt or in search of a good story, when face to face with Pasquale after all these years, Deane takes the elderly Italian, Claire and the player-in-training Shane on a trip to find Dee and learn what has happened to her. Clearly, she has not died; less clear is how well she’s lived. In tracking their journey, Walter skillfully fills in the lives and loves of the characters we’ve already met, along with those of a seeming cast of thousands we bump into along the road. His balanced mixture of pathos and comedy stirs the heart and amuses as it also rescues us from the all-too-human pain that is the motor of this complex novel. Any reservations the reader might have about another book skewering Hollywood will be swept aside by this high-wire feat of bravura storytelling.
By Jess Walter
Viking, 352pp, £12.99
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Wednesday 19 June 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 16 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 12 C to 20 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: East