The following descriptions have rarely, if ever, been applied to previous Jess Walter novels: “love story,” “sweeping” and “intergenerational.”
“Gritty” and “darkly comic” were more like it.
Yet the Spokane author’s sixth novel, “Beautiful Ruins,” is a significant departure: A warm and complex love story that sweeps from a quaint 1962 Italian seaside village to a quiet cabin on Lake Pend Oreille in the present day. Meanwhile, Walter whisks us to Portland, Seattle, Edinburgh, London and, most crucially, Hollywood.
It also includes a character nobody ever expected to see in a Jess Walter novel: Richard Burton, the famous Welsh actor of “Liz and Dick” fame.
Several of Walter’s previous novels have been set implicitly or explicitly in Spokane; and after reading “Beautiful Ruins,” I still suspect Walter’s a bit more familiar with say, Spokane Valley, than he is with rocky Italian fishing villages. Yet “Beautiful Ruins” is an audacious and ultimately successful attempt to open up new geographic – and more importantly, emotional – territory. This novel is about the way our hearts often desire what is wrong for us and wrong for others. Yet as Pasquale’s mother says, “the smaller the space between your desire and what is right, the happier you will be.” The ensuing happiness, as this book demonstrates, can be profound.
“Beautiful Ruins” covers wide territory stylistically, as well. Here are some of the forms Walter employs from chapter to chapter:
• A movie pitch about a blockbuster titled “Donner!” (as in, Donner Party).
• An unpublished chapter of a World War II memoir.
• An unpublished excerpt from a character’s self-help book.
• A scene from a stage script.
These are interspersed with a number of more conventional narrative chapters, yet even these are related from shifting points of view. Many center on Pasquale, a somewhat quixotic Italian villager. Others center on a young Hollywood development assistant named Claire and her self-aggrandizing boss, Michael Deane. One particularly effective passage is told from the point of view of Pat Bender, a troubled indie rock singer turned solo singer-songwriter. And finally, we hear from Dee Moray, aka Debra Bender, whose mysterious 1962 arrival in Pasquale’s quiet fishing village sets the complex plot in motion.
Without giving too much away, let me sum up the plot up like this: Dee Moray is an actress who has had a fling with Richard Burton on the set of “Cleopatra.” She is whisked off to a remote village by nervous producers, where she meets Pasquale, but only for a few days. After 50 years have passed, Pasquale goes looking for her.
No, this does not play out according to standard romance novel clichés. It’s far more complex and satisfying than that.
The book’s frequent interludes do create some problems with flow. I found myself irritated, just when getting into the rhythm of the narrative, to have to read a lengthy pitch for “Donner!” It was funny, I’ll admit, but it stopped the story cold.
My interest also flagged in the goings-on at Porto Vergogna, Pasquale’s fishing village. This is partly because the inhabitants seemed like stock “quaint Italian villagers” and partly because Pasquale’s charm was based a little too much on his inability to say things correctly in English. Yet at just about this time, at about the halfway point, the book takes an invigorating turn. Suddenly, we are immersed in the story of musician Pat Bender, taking his final shot at fame during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Pat is a charmer and a rogue and he has been allowed to skate along for years on those qualities. Far from finding fame in Edinburgh, he finds himself abandoned and desolate. It is exactly what he deserves. For me, “Beautiful Ruins” came vividly alive during this chapter and stayed strong all the way to the final page.
We soon realize that Pat Bender is crucial to the story. The plot threads soon begin to click cleverly into place, but not in a way that feels contrived or clichéd. One of the final chapters, set in Sandpoint, is particularly moving as we slowly realize what Pat and Debra Bender have made of their lives.
Then the story of Pasquale and Dee reaches its end in a moving, emotional finish, but not in a gauzy, romantic way. They have already achieved their desires by doing, essentially, what is right. I find that deeply romantic in an entirely different way.