Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter (2012)

Genre: Contemporary/Historical
Interest Level: Adult
Beautiful RuinsI’m out of sync with the rest of the world on this one – I eventually loved it, but it took time to warm up to these characters and this author’s writing. Once I did, though, it was an absolute pleasure. The genre is difficult to pin down – it spans 50 years, though the bulk of the story develops at either end of the range. It opens in 1962 in a remote cliffside town in Italy, and then switches to modern-day Hollywood, where Claire is the development assistant for a legendary producer who abuses Botox. Over the course of the novel, we follow the lives of a minor American actor and a movie star, an Italian innkeeper, a messed-up 40-something musician, an overconfident wannabe scriptwriter and of course, the Hollywood types. Walter irritated me from the start by relying on cliche descriptions for the Hollywood scenes: “Claire wakes, jonesing for data; she fumbles on the crowded bedside table for her BlackBerry, takes a digital hit”; “every table sporting a sullen white screenwriter in glasses, every pair of glasses aimed at a Mac Pro laptop”, “Claire strides over, her skirt drawing the eyes of the Coffee Bean screenwriters.” Claire, her boss, her boyfriend, the screenwriter, the people trying to hire her away from the film producer – none of these people is likeable. I realize Walter is making a point, but a lighter touch with the tropes would have helped here. Or maybe just a more generous view of humanity. Having said that, it does improve dramatically as she develops an interwoven plot that stretches from Edinburgh to Sandpoint, Idaho (where I just happened to overnight on my way to Montana this summer!) and ultimately offers what I’m always seeking in my stories – drama, justice, and a reaffirmation that good trumps bad. Eventually. I was delighted with the ending, and ultimately recommend this book. Just stick with it past the first 50 pages or so. It’s well worth it. Kind of like having to drive through the Lower Mainland in order to get to the achingly beautiful parts of our province.
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