Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter (author), Edoardo Ballerini (narrator)

Harper Audio, June 2012

I liked this book, but good grief, it irritated me at at times.

It's set fifty years ago in Italy, and today mostly in Hollywood, with some side trips to points in between.

It's 1962, and Pasquale Tursi, just twenty-one, has inherited the family inn from his father. It's a tiny, mostly empty inn, in a tiny hint of a village on the Genoa coast. He's also inherited his father's dream of making it into a resort for wealthy American tourists, and he's single-handedly trying to build a beach on the rocky coast by digging out the rocks and bringing in sand. He's chest-deep in water holding one of the rocks when a boat approaches, bringing in a beautiful, blonde, young American actress.

Dee Moray has just started her film career, working on Cleopatra with the scandalous and exciting Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. She's just been told by a doctor that she has stomach cancer. A young publicist on the movie set, Michael Deane, has arranged for her to go to Switzerland for treatment, and in the meantime, he's send her to Porto Vergogna for rest and quiet, and to wait for the man she expects to join her there.

In the next chapter, we are in Hollywood fifty years later, and the now legendary producer Michael Deane is not at the peak of his career, but he's making good money. His idealistic young assistant, Claire Silver, dreams of making great movies, but in fact she's working for a man who is, at this stage in his career, making crass but profitable reality tv shows. And once a month is "Wild Pitch Friday," when almost anyone might be coming into Claire's office to pitch almost any kind of idea. And on this particular Friday, at the end of the day when she just wants to leave, two men appear: Shane Wheeler, her last appointment of the day, and an elderly Italian man--Pasquale Tursi. Shane's there to pitch a movie about the Donner party, of cannibalism fame, but his Italian is better than Pasquale's English, and Shane translates for him.

Fifty years later, Pasquale still has Michael Deane's business card, and he's here, at long last, wanting to find out what happened to Dee Moray, and if possible where she is.

In alternating chapters, we follow the events of fifty years ago, as Dee, Pasquale, Deane, and others try to make useful decisions in a crisis. There's Dee's personal crisis, which is different than she thinks it is. There are the mafiosi from the nearby, larger, frankly more attractive resort town, who feel Pasquale has stolen a customer from them. Deane is trying to manage the unmanageable Burton and Taylor to keep the scandalous publicity the right kind of scandal to promote the movie rather than kill it.

I don't think it's much of a spoiler to say that Deane is amazingly self-absorbed and not at all a nice guy.

And we follow the events in the present day, as Pasquale seeks news of what happened to Dee, Claire tries to find a way to be true to her dreams while making a living, and Shane tries to prove to himself that he has a future in movies.

We also follow the difficult, struggling career of Pat Bender, Dee's son, and his girlfriend who has realized she just can't fix him, and has to take care of herself and the others who depend on her.

Pasquale, Dee, Pasquale's American friend Alvis, and a number of others try hard to do the right thing and to make the best decisions they can. Then there are the others, like Deane. Richard Burton has a small role, and tries not to be a total jerk, but if he weren't a scandal-ridden drunk, some of the problems would never arise.

I've enjoyed a lot of non-linear story-telling, but the jumping around here often seems scattershot. Even allowing for that, a plot is hard to find. I do like the characters, who are well-done, and that's what kept me with the book to the end.

My taste for literary fiction is limited, and that's part of my problem with this book. If you like literary fiction, you may find more here than I did.

I bought this book.