Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
So here’s the last of my recent unintentional assemblage of end-of-World-War-II novels that began with Elizabeth Wein’s wrenching Rose Under Fire, and progressed with Chris Bohjalian’s desperate Skeletons at the Feast and continued with his latest, the vengeful The Light in the Ruins. Of this week’s quartet, Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins (how about that corresponding title?) is the least haunted; that said, the sections that give voice to a would-be novelist’s Italian experiences as an American soldier in the final days before war’s end, and how he spends the rest of his life attempting to make sense of his survival, imbues Ruins with greater gravitas than most of today’s too-easily dismissible bestseller fare.
Walter clearly enjoys playing with his readers, criss-crossing time zones, countries, languages, and characters with alacrity and ease. Narrator Edoardo Ballerini voices Walter’s prose seamlessly, equally comfortable with traditional fishermen as with Hollywood glitterati, even giving Richard Burton’s lines quite the memorable recitation.
Ruins dovetails two major plot lines – in 1962, a young innkeeper in a tiny Italian coastal village falls in love with one of his only guests, an American actress dying of cancer. She’s arrived at The Hotel Adequate View in Porto Vergogna (Port Shame, in English) to wait for her lover before she seeks treatment in Switzerland. Already, you’re probably realizing that much will be lost in translation. Hold on to that thought throughout …
Fast forward decades later to today’s Hollywood, where a development assistant to a powerful film producer is contemplating a job with the Church of Scientology, but reluctantly agrees to take one more film pitch before picking up a bucket of chicken for her porn-addicted boyfriend. Arriving at the studio office at the same time as the would-be scriptwriter, is – surprise! – our Italian hotelier in search of his starlet. Much will be lost – and found – in haphazard but reliable-enough translation.
What might seem like sprawling stories-within-stories is exactly that. But Walters deftly weaves his web, creates a few surprising twists, and manages to tie all the various threads neatly together. He’s especially facile in adding the absurd to enhance an entertaining story: readers of a certain age will surely appreciate the Liz and Dick show, while the reality show titles alone should elicit quite the guffaws. Laughter aside, he also shows how language can become superfluous within our most meaningful connections.
Tidbit: What serendipitous timing: Helena Bonham Carter and Dominic West are the latest to embody the iconic Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, this time for BBC. After Beautiful Ruins, you’ll be so well prepared for the Stateside airdate of Burton and Taylor, set for October 16 on BBC America. Check your local listings!