Beautiful Ruins

51cwEmecIgL._AA160_book by Jess Walter

annotation by Kate Maruyama

I have recently finished revising—for a fifth time– a Hollywood book, where one woman’s life decisions made in 1930s and 40s Hollywood have repercussions through three generations of her family. I was casting about for comparisons to my book and when I read the description of Beautiful Ruins, I got a twinge of fear familiar to most writers–that somehow my exact idea had been written before mine and was coming out from someone else in the world. And when I read the life of Claire Silver, young development exec, the twinge deepened, but once I got involved in Pasquale Tursi’s life and the young actress who comes to his remote hotel in an Italian Cove, all of this left me and the book carried me away so completely from any narcissistic thoughts of my own work, of marketplace, of competition that it took until I sat down to write this annotation to remember why I’d picked up the book in the first place.

And there’s a lot to learn from a book that transports the reader so completely. And a lot to learn from the complicated multiple Point of View multi-time structure Walter is able to create while maintaining an emotional tremolo that holds the book together.  Some chapters, particularly toward the end, hold a POV sleight of hand so clever it may take a second read to sort them out.

Pasquale’s point of view is very close and when we meet him, in his late twenties working his father’s hotel in a forgotten cove in Italy, we are given his frenetic energy and helplessness over his own life, but at the same time a curiosity and that frantic yearning we so often feel in our twenties. Pasquale’s English isn’t so great at this point and he has so many characters speaking very rapid complicated English at  him, it took me a while to figure Walter’s use of the thick dialogue. But cleverly, Walter gives us the English dialogue that we might get background and Pasquale’s frequent interpretations of what’s being told to him. Thus, we the readers are able to see the entire scene with all of its details while Pasquale doesn’t leave character. It is a theatrical trick—in a way the English speakers speak in asides to the audience while the other players on stage don’t know fully what’s being communicated.

Once I got over the fearful twinge on comparison, I adored Walter’s portrayal of Hollywood–from the long suffering D-girl, Claire to Michael Deane, a Robert Evans type mogul whose plastic surgery and various youth treatments have rendered him an aging man with a plasticky babyface. Walter gives us Michael through so many eyes, Claire’s, Pasquale’s, Dee’s and Michael’s himself—among others that we have a full portrait of this guy who will do anything for a deal. This makes the scenes through which he navigates terrifying as Michael bulldozes through people’s lives. When he plows into an extremely fragile grouping of characters in the end it evokes a bull in a china shop terror that would be hilarious if it weren’t so horrifying. Michael has segued into movies from reality shows and is very close to selling the biggest idea ever—Hookbook—but I’ll leave the details on that pitch for your read.

What Walter manages to illustrate is the devastating affect people can have on each other’s lives through even brief contact. Richard Burton and Michael Deane plow a wide swathe through a large handful of people and the ripple effect through lives across generations—from Pasquale, his son and family to Dee and her subsequent family, to Claire, a development girl in Hollywood who can’t find her direction in life and Shane, a dude with a dream, it all ripples out and Walter pulls it in in the end.

Walter tells the story in painterly strokes, giving us one POV after another. Pasquale in the 1960s, Dee in the 1960s, Debra in the 70s and in the present, Claire in the present, Michael Deane in the 60s and then the present, Dee’s son, Pat in the present and the unlikely interpreter—Shane who has traveled to LA to pitch a movie about the Donner party only to find himself a witness and a pawn in a much larger game. Each stroke gives us insight into not only the story, but each of these characters, as everyone views each other differently. It is Dee’s view, Claire’s view, Shane’s view, Michael Deane’s view, Pat’s view and Pasquale’s view of himself that create this rich, many layered person. And still Walter is able to keep the crucial details to himself so that Pasquale is able to reveal something truly beautiful to us about his life in the end.

When all of our characters are assembled in the end and information is coming thick and fast, Walter manages to go in and out of various characters’ POV within one scene. This usually provides a complicated whiplash, but Walter managed me to keep close enough in each character’s POV that it all worked. This is definitely something to study as it so often goes wrong and Faulkner’s the only other guy I can think of who gets away with it so easily.

Walter reminds us that POV is not just a way to take us into different characters’ lives, it is a way to reveal character, plot, and that ineffable way in which we all affect each other. And it is a truly useful tool in portraying the great messiness that makes up human existence, how we all bump up against each other on this planet, sometimes having a deeper affect than we realize. He pulls this off without being overtly manipulative, without telling us what to feel. The result is a deeply affecting story and a really lovely flourish at the end.

I have three points of view in my novel—three people whose lives are inextricably entangled. But Walter makes me want to explore more tertiary characters in future books. To jump outside the central story and take some chance encounters for a drive. See what they might reveal. I suspect all of them may not stay in the final draft, but without trying, I may never know what those characters can reveal.

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