Review of ‘Beautiful Ruins’ by Jess Walter
‘Beautiful Ruins’ by Jess Walter
Published by Penguin
ISBN 978 0 670 92265 9
Reviewed by C P Howe
Acknowledgement: The review copy of Beautiful Ruins was provided by Booksellers New Zealand.
In the early 1960s the movie ‘Cleopatra’ was being filmed in Rome. It remains one of the most expensive movies ever made, and almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox. It, and the fallout from the high-profile affair between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor during shooting, forms the backdrop to ‘Beautiful Ruins’ by Jess Walter.
Beautiful Ruins was first published in 2012 and topped the New York Times bestseller list. The New Zealand edition, published by Penguin, has a bold, retro-coloured photomontage with plenty of accolades on both front and back covers. It can’t, therefore be read without a high degree of expectation. With a quote on the front from Nick Hornby that says, ‘Beautiful Ruins is a novel unlike any other you’re likely to read this year,’ the bar is set high. I wasn’t disappointed.
Jess Walter’s novel is a complex, emotional and moving story. The structure is imaginative and unconventional, but not necessarily ground breaking. We get multiple points of view, often in the same chapter, but Walter’s assured prose leaves us in no doubt as to which character we are with at any given time. There are extracts from books, scripts and unpublished memoirs, sometimes presented as whole chapters, sometimes in the middle of chapters. The reader has to trust that while, moments ago, the prose was a conventional third person narrative in modern day Los Angeles, and now is an account of a treacherous mountain crossing in the 1800s, the author is doing it for a reason that will be revealed when he’s good and ready.
I was reminded me, in a way, of Jennifer Egan’s ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad,’ where the form of each chapter can be quite different but works together as a whole. This kind of writing, this kind of structure, can seem contrived and artificial and such criticism has certainly been levelled at Egan and Walter. This kind of approach is successful only when each component has a part to play, and when the reader doesn’t fully realise what those parts are, and how they all fit together, until the end. This is, of course, true with all fiction. Every sentence must do its job. When an author plays around with form – including scripts, letters, or even powerpoint presentations in the case of Egan – then the form itself must do something for the story, as well as the content. Walter has pulled this off brilliantly in ‘Beautiful Ruins.’
At the heart of ‘Beautiful Ruins’ is a love story between an obscure American actress and a young Italian student forced to stay in his remote coastal village after his father dies. Real, famous people rub shoulders and more with Walter’s fictional creations, and the background is boldly coloured with the fallout of the second world war, as well as Hollywood and the Burton-Taylor mythology. Walter spans five decades of the lives that were touched by those ‘beautiful ruins’ – the term comes from a real interview with Burton – and in doing so he tells a story that can’t fail to touch the reader.
In other hands such a story could have turned to schmaltz, but Walter shows incredible control of emotion and time, and does it in a way that makes this novel impossible to put down. While some may regard the ending as a little too neat, it is hard to see how it Walter could have gone any other way.
I can only start to imagine the time it took to write and re-write, the thinking, mapping and exploration it took to weave together this story so that, in the end, it all makes sense. Some of the connections, revealed without any tricksy manoeuvres or contrived circumstances, take your breath away. The cast of characters is large, but they are all there for a reason. It took Walter fifteen years to write this book – or, as he says in the author interview included in this edition, what he means is he ‘…managed to squeeze in two or three years of writing during fifteen years of drinking and self-loathing.’
Having paused for breath I went on to read the author interviews a couple of weeks after finishing ‘Beautiful Ruins.’ I came away with such huge admiration and respect for Jess Walter that I went straight out and bought ‘Tumbled Graves,’ his first novel, and I intend to work my way through his other four books as soon as I can.