Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Beautiful Ruins

'Beautiful Ruins' by Jess Walter.
Some time ago I started reading 'The Financial lives of Poets' and really didn't like it so took it back to the library. It was only when I finished 'Beautiful Ruins' and read the interview in the back that I realised it was by the same author, and, strangely, that Jess was a man not a woman. There had been a couple of occasions while reading when I had thought 'a woman just would not write that sentence' (usually when he expressed something profoundly misogynistic and clich├ęd) but I had dismissed it as just a stylistic quirk. Having said that I loved this book. It was clever and witty and engagingly complex and all beautifully tied together. It will make a great film.

The book hops around in time and space to tell the story of Dee and Pasquale. She floats into and then out of his remote italian fishing village leaving in her wake a ripple that flows through the story. And so he turns up fifty years later at the office of a slightly sleazy movie producer in the hope of finding out what happened to her. Everyone in the tale has dreams, and reality intrudes very forcefully into all of them, but they cling on regardless. Pasquale dreams of tourists discovering his tiny hamlet and coming to play tennis overlooking the bay; Michael Deane dreams of money; Claire Silver dreams of helping to produce real films; Pat dreams of success, and drugs and alcohol; Avis Bender dreams of finishing his novel; Shane Wheeler just wants to make a movie. In 1962 they are filming 'Cleopatra' and Michael Deane has been sent to turn it from a money pit into a film that might not break the company. He decides to use the tempestuous relationship between Taylor and Burton to fuel the publicity, but has to deal with the tricky problem of Dee Moray and so has hidden her in Pasquale's remote little hotel. Richard Burton makes a wonderful cameo appearance placing this part of the story firmly within the chaotic world of the film industry. Pasquale's disgust with the manipulative treatment of Dee forces him to reassess his own choices and behaviour. The other half of the story takes place in present day America; Michael Deane is looking for a way out of his financial entanglements with the studio but finds himself caught up in Pasquale's quest to find Dee and the private detective comes up with some unexpected results. 

I loved these two little moments between Pasquale and Dee, because it is exquisitely romantic; everything that exists between them is unspoken, unacknowledged, and yet it still endures:

" 'At first it seemed like the saddest thing to me,' she said, 'that no one would ever see these paintings. But then I got to thinking: What if you tried to take this wall and out it in a gallery somewhere? It would simply be five faded paintings in a gallery. And that's when I realised: perhaps they're only so remarkable because they're here.'
'Yes,' he said again. 'I think so.'
They sat quietly, as the day deepened, sunlight from the turrets slowly edging up the wall of paintings. Pasquale's eyes felt heavy and he thought it might be the most intimate thing possible, to fall asleep next to someone in the afternoon." (p.273)

"Pasquale climbed into the fish-gut-stained boat and sat in the bow, his knees together like a schoolboy at a desk. He was unable to stop his eyes from sweeping the front of the hotel, where Dee Moray had just stepped onto the porch and was standing next to Avis Bender. She shielded the sun from her eyes and looked down at him curiously.
Again, Pasquale felt the separate pulls of his mind and body - and right then, he honestly didn't know which way it would go. Would he stay in the boat? Or would he run up the path to the hotel and take her in his arms? And what would she do if he did? There was nothing explicit between them, nothing more than that slightly opened door. And yet ... what could be more alluring?
In that moment, Pasquale Tursi finally wrenched in two. His life was two lives now: the life he would have and the life he would forever wonder about.
'Please,' Pasquale rasped to Tommaso. 'Go.' " (p.308)

There is a fabulous cast worthy of an epic film, I particularly loved Tommaso the Communist and Aunt Valeria and all the residents of Porto Vergogna. So the story jumps back and forth between the two times, with merely a glimpse of the years in between. The crossroads that brought them together was left far behind and lives were just lived as if it had not happened, but the ripples were still there, lapping at the shore and sometimes you just have to know. It is really about the chaotic nature of life and how people's choices and decisions impact on each other, and that maybe after all the chaos things will quieten down and you might finally find what you need. A  truly satisfying read, it took him 15 years to complete apparently and was certainly worth the wait.

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