Sunday, June 29, 2014

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

What is happiness? What is life?

Dee Moray, beautiful bit player on the world’s most extravagant movie, Cleopatra, is sequestered in a tiny pensione on the Mediterrean Coast, the Hotel Adequate View, believing she is dying of cancer. Pasquale, the inn's owner, a young man with grandiose expansionary plans, falls in love. The two are separated, but fifty years later, Pasquale visits the United States to discover Dee's fate. In the meantime, the reader learns the stories of numerous other characters related to Dee and Pasquale.

The heart of this novel is not so much this simple plot, but rather all the various clever (and delightful) ways the story is told, through differing POVs and differing narrative styles.  We read excerpts from the memoir of a slimy Hollywood producer, a treatment of a ridiculous film (Donner!), and the sad sack tale of a American screwup at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It only occurs to me now that perhaps this is a collection of linked short stories.  Though it couldn't be - the central mystery of what  happened to Dee Moray is ingeniously parceled out and threaded through the other narratives.

At first I found the novel a little too irritatingly cutesy, but the more I read, the more I admired the twisting together of the plotlines.  In many ways the novel is about Hollywood and fame, and what exactly does it mean to settle for real life if you can’t get fame. The most famous character in the book also seems the saddest.

Although I wouldn't say I was gripped by Beautiful Ruins. I read my allotted fifty pages per day and at the end of the fifty pages felt no urge to keep reading. If I had truly loved it, I would have finished it in one sitting. Maybe I didn’t love it because there was no compelling central character only an assortment of eccentrics. Also everyone, even the slimy producer, was annoyingly noble.

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