The attraction of Beautiful Ruins

The time span covered in Beautiful Ruins (by Jess Walter, Harper Audio, 2012, read by 61QIpLSFAHL._SL500_AA300_PIaudible,BottomRight,13,73_AA300_Edoardo Ballerini) is significant – from roughly mid-World War II to the present. Of course, many novels skip back and forth through decades – centuries even. Multigenerational? Is that what they’re called? But time is important in this book because one of its major themes is how people, either through ambition or regret or intoxication or denial or in fact for lots of reasons, live in everything but the present moment. This is not a good thing because, to paraphrase one of the book’s characters, people spend their lives waiting for their lives to happen.

Okay, not all that insightful or profound. So, enough of the pompous Deeper Meaning interpretations. I liked this book for other reasons anyway. First, I love the guy who does the reading, Edoardo Ballerini. I have previously praised his narration of The Swerve, a totally different assignment, of course. It helps that Ballerini is Italian, as much of Beautiful Ruins takes place in Italy. So, he handles the occasional Italian phrase very well. But beyond that, his rendering of all of the characters is superb. He has a wide variety of voices to interpret and he delivers each with distinctiveness and consistency. You’re never confused about who is speaking. If he made any mistakes, I don’t remember them.

The same might be said for the author, Jess Walter. Beautiful Ruins is a well-told story, an achievement which becomes more impressive in light of the complicated and interwoven plot lines. And, actually the plot isn’t central to the enjoyment of this book. Nevertheless, here’s a summary:

In 1962, Pasquale Tursi, the young heir to a hotel called The Adequate View (seriously) in the very culturally low-profile coastal Italian town of Porto Vergogna, watches one day as a beautiful young woman disembarks to register in his hotel (which will make her the only guest for the time being). It turns out that this woman is an American actor who is playing an extra in the movie production of Cleopatra, at that time being filmed in Rome. Yes, that one – with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. The actress’s name is Dee Moray and Pasquale falls for her immediately. He soon learns that she has come to Porto Vergogna for some R & R. She has been diagnosed with stomach cancer by a physician who works for the film studio.

Of course, we are already suspicious. It also turns out that Dee is one of Richard Burton’s sexual conquests and she may be seen as threat to Liz’s relationship with Burton, and, thus to the successful completion of an already troubled project. Michael Deane, a young PR flack for the studio (he figures prominently in other sections as a successful movie/TV producer), arranges for Dee’s “sojourn,” and, well, I hate to be a spoiler, but it should be pretty clear (and becomes clear relatively early in the novel) what’s going here. Let me just say that the studio-appointed doctor may have been a little overzealous in is diagnosis of Miss Moray’s condition. As the great Dr. Gregory House memorably reports to one of his female patients after examining her during one of his dreaded clinic hours, “You have a parasite.” And he was not talking about an alien species.

Another regular, though infrequent, American guest of The Adequate View is a writer named Alvis Bender, who provides a narrative bridge to World War II, having served in Italy during that conflict. He also figures in Dee Moray’s future. Okay, there, I did it. Sorry. Yes, Ms. Moray survives. So does her child, a son named Pat who is an almost-famous musician with substance abuse and relationship issues. Okay, so that situation is a bit of a cliché.

I should say that Alvis Bender is a frustrated writer. He actually only completes one chapter of his magnum opus on WWII. For the rest of his somewhat abbreviated life he’s a car salesman (lending some irony to his demise) and an alcoholic (lending even some more irony to his last name). In fact, one of the motifs running through Beautiful Ruins is that of artistic frustration coupled with or complicated by the allure of fame.

Which brings us back to Michael Deane, in the present day. More specifically it brings us to a young woman who works for Deane, basically as a script, what, screener? Her name is Claire Silver. Essentially she spends her time listening to writers make pitches for new movies and TV shows. She hates it. The pitches are preposterous, their wackiness exemplified in the offering of one Shane Wheeler, whose idea is to make a movie called Donner! which is about exactly what you think it’s about – people in a wagon train, headed west, stranded by snow in a mountain pass and eating children to stay alive.

Claire is appalled. But wait! Deane loves it! Or appears to. Or likes the fact that Wheeler speaks some Italian and can interpret for this old guy, Tursi, who has just shown up looking for Deane’s help in finding Dee Moray.

Okay, basta! with the plot summaries. Beautiful Ruins is worth listening to for the story, the handling of the thematic elements, the humor (the episodes with Richard Burton are hilarious), the cynicism, and the quality of the writing.

I think that’s enough.

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