Tuesday, April 15, 2014

'Beautiful Ruins': Hollywood and Happy Endings

I read seasonally.  In the summer, I tend to love books that make me laugh out loud, love stories with sappy endings, and memoirs that show hopefulness in the face of hopelessness.  In the winter I read heavy books that stimulate my thinking.  I love to curl up on my couch under a blanket and read with my highlighter in hand as I learn new subjects and look out the window and see the snow knowing that I have no where to go.  In the winter I also love to read historical fiction rife with tragedy and triumph, but dark endings don't bother me when the sky looms gray every day.  During spring I crave transition books that can take me from the cold winds to warm breezy afternoons. When I saw the sunny Italian coastline on the cover of "Beautiful Ruins" by Jess Walter, I reached for it knowing it was time to make the transition from my dark, heavy winter books to more springy sweetness.

This book screams "make me into a movie" possibly because so much of it reads like a movie.  The plot spans 50 years as it intricately follows the lives of a fallen Hollywood starlet, the owner of a hotel in a remote Italian village, an aging Hollywood mogul and his idealistic young assistant, a Hollywood wannabe writer, and an addiction addled musician.  Moving seamlessly from Italy to Hollywood to a festival in Edinburgh, Walters provides a perfect landscape for love, lost love, redemption, and reconciliation.

The novel opens in 1962 on a tiny fishing village on the coast of Italy as a beautiful Hollywood actress, Dee Moray, steps off of a boat and enters "The Hotel Adequate View" to rest from her recent diagnosis of stomach cancer.  The innkeeper, Pasquale, instantly falls in love with her beauty and grace and although his language cannot always communicate how he feels about her, Dee seems just as captivated by him.

In the present day storyline, Claire, an idealistic assistant of the Hollywood icon, Michael Deane, wrestles with her desire for movies with substance and finds instead the emptiness of the Hollywood facade.  On a "wild pitch Friday" where anyone can come and pitch a movie she meets two men, Shane Wheeler who wants to pitch a movie based on the Donner party, and Pasquale who is in search of Dee Moray.

The chapters alternate from past to present and weave together the paths of these unlikely characters whose lives intersect in Hollywood-esque ways.  The novel culminates in a search party for past love, present opportunities, and the quest for truth.

Although I enjoyed the story lines, I found myself skimming a few of the more wordy chapters and hoping to read more about Pasquale and Dee whose intimate, quiet moments ache with the pain of love that is within reach and out of reach all at the same time.  The sadness of the book intermingled well with the silly parts (especially Shane Wheeler whose whole life seems to be just as much a facade as the sets in Hollywood).  The gritty life of Pat Bender and his journey back to himself as well as the script chapter of how his story is made into a play made me want to applaud Jess Walter and his "play within a play" approach of bringing Pat's character home.

If you need a shot of bliss this spring, and you are looking for a good book to get lost in, find "Beautiful Ruins" and let the Hollywood ending transition you from the gray, oppressive winter to the lighthearted days of spring.

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