I have little to say about Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins. I enjoyed it very much — but it didn’t provoke me to critical thought. A symptom: not once, while reading it, did I reach for a pencil to jot down a note or a page number, which I almost always do — partly because I anticipate writing posts or reviews on most books I read, and partly because writing things down helps me bring my reading into focus. If I’m reading and discover I don’t have a writing implement nearby, I usually get more and more fretful until finally I discombobulate myself from whatever comfy position I’ve nestled into and go get one — and often some post-it notes, to boot, just to be on the safe side! But my copy of Beautiful Ruins is pristine.
In one sense, this is a good sign: a sign of the pleasure and ease with which I read the novel. But as I’ve reflected on the odd blankness I feel approaching it as a critic, I think it’s also the result of Walter putting some of the more interesting (provoking, challenging) moments of the story off-stage and letting us just carry on. We don’t, for example, go with Dee Moray as she makes her fateful choice between fame and family. We spend more time with Pasquale as he becomes man enough to take on his responsibilities as a father, but we only learn about the details, and the life that followed, in retrospect, and then it’s in the context of a reunion that idealizes a love that is, shall we say, more fantasy than reality. That’s fine, in a novel that’s a lot about how we live with and in our dreams , but for me that kind of love story requires a suspension of disbelief that does mean disengaging critically: oh, so it’s that kind of book, one in which two strangers meet for a short time, hardly communicate, and yet form a bond that survives decades of separate experience! It’s lovely, because it’s entirely non-ironic, and because the potential for it to be saccharine is controlled by its pathos and by the sharper edges of the other stories interconnected with it, some of which are acerbically satirical. But for me at least, its very loveliness makes it strangely uninteresting to talk about. As for those other stories — well, the more I think about them, the less I want to talk about them either, because they start to seem kind of obvious riffs on predictable motifs for a Hollywood novel, but saying that devalues the fun it was to read them.
In the end I think I would have liked the novel better (and perhaps found more to say about it) if it had been a saga of a more traditional kind: sticking with our lovers through thick and thin, richer in context and depth and avoiding the borderline-too-clever interspersing of other styles and voices. But Walter’s right that his title neatly encapsulates the book’s unities: when he read the phrase used to describe Richard Burton (who has a cameo appearance), he tells us,
I immediately went back through the novel, stunned at how many times I had used words like ruins and rubble to describe the people and places, the remnants of the Hollywood system, the shards of our culture; the very novel itself was constructed of artifacts, bits of movies and books and plays.
And so it is.
This (therefore) will not have been a proper post. Sorry about that! But I do (perversely, perhaps) recommend Beautiful Ruins if you want a book that will take you to Italy, and to the movies, and to some funny and touching places along the way.