Monday, May 9, 2016

Dreams in ruins

This is what happens when you live in dreams, he thought: you dream this and you dream that and you sleep right through your life.
Jess Walter, Beautiful Ruins

Jess Walter says Beautiful Ruins, his break-through novel, was nearly finished before he knew what to call it, or perhaps even what it was all about. Then he came across a magazine article in which actor Richard Burton, then 54, was described as "already a beautiful ruin." And so, after 15 years of struggle, he had his novel, a gem that deserves all the attention it has received since its publication in 2012.

Burton was already a minor, yet important, character in the story. He is the reason Dee Moray, a beautiful young American actress with a small part in Cleopatra, shows up in a tiny Italian coastal village in 1962. She thinks she is dying of cancer. In truth she is pregnant with Burton's baby. Sent by a studio doctor to Switzerland for treatment, actually an abortion, she instead goes to Porto Vergogna. There Pasquale Tursi strives to turn his small hotel into a resort, complete with a cliff-side tennis court, that will appeal to American tourists. When this lovely actress shows up, he is smitten.

The novel spans decades, and Walter goes back and forth in time, constantly tossing in seemingly unrelated narratives like a chapter of another novel and a pitch for a screenplay about the Donner party. Somehow it all works, and a reader's patience will be rewarded.

Burton is not the novel's only "beautiful ruin." Most of the characters, Dee and Pasquale among them, live lives that fail to equal their dreams. When in the final chapters an aging Pasquale comes to America in search of an aging Dee Moray, by now truly dying of cancer, the ruins of their dreams become quite beautiful.

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