Jess Walter's latest novel, Beautiful Ruins, is a novel that makes you stop and take notice. It's one of the many novels I've read lately that I've been meaning to read for a while and only managed to thanks to my new subscription to Audible. I can't believe that I waited this long. And it was so good that I wished I'd read it in print form, except the narration by Edoardo Ballerini is so good that I can't imagine not having experienced it. I guess I'll just need to buy a copy of the book too. It's really that good. I fully expect it to be winning some prizes. Some more prizes, that is. Audible has already named it the best audiobook of the year!
So. We start in Italy in 1962, in a little cliffside nowhere town where no one ever goes. Pasquale, the owner of the only hotel in the area, which has only ever had one American guest to date, is attempting to build a beach while daydreaming about the cliffside tennis court that he will use to lure in the foreigners. A boat comes ashore bearing a strangely beautiful American actress, Dee Moray, who is dying of stomach cancer. And from there starts a non-linear sequence of events, mostly set in 1962 Italy and 20-something Los Angeles, with stops in between in Seattle and Scotland and some other places too. The lives of the many characters, which includes actor Richard Burton among the fictional, weave in and out, colliding and breaking apart only to come together again.
It's hard to describe. So much goes on and in such a seemingly (but not at all) disorganized way that it's hard to say what it's really about. A lot of reviews talk about the social satire in the novel but I didn't sense that at the time, though I see it now. What really struck me about Beautiful Ruins was the existentialism - the constant, underlying question of What is the point? Why should I bother? Though not overly so, it was often absurd, which I guess is where the social commentary comes in - the sheer pointlessness of what the characters do and why they do it rises to the surface, and without Walter having to drag it up. He's incredibly skilled at delivering these themes without being heavy-handed - as though this is what is really there (and maybe it is) and all he's done is uncover it and leave it for us to find. And while existentialism tends to be depressing, Beautiful Ruins is not - in the end, it is uplifting, or at least it was for me.
I really enjoyed how, while the novel had two main story lines, Walter included snippets of other stories, as though to show how his characters are not truly the whole world he has created - they are only a sample. I also really liked the other pieces - the pieces of media lifted out of the novel itself for the reader to experience. A hotel guest leaves a story he wrote in a drawer, which a later guest reads, and we get to read it too. A character goes to LA to pitch a movie, and we get to hear his pitch (and so how earnest it is). A play, the beginning of a memoir...we get it all. What's interesting about that too is that of all these efforts, only one "makes it" and is completely distorted in the process. What does that say about meaning?
Waters is really a fantastic writer and I can't believe that I've never read or even heard of him before. His writing is fantastic, thoughtful and personal while remaining in the third person, where I am generally most comfortable, and where we get the most omniscient viewpoint. I think that he really takes some risks in Beautiful Ruins - by switching storylines so often, including different forms of writing, moving around in time - but he executes it masterfully. I will definitely be reading his other novels.
I can't end this review without saying again how superb the narration was. Ballerini is an absolutely fantastic narrator - he did the Italian bits wonderfully, was convincing with multiple accents including standard American English, and did each characters' voice perfectly and consistently. He's really a wonderful storyteller, and would makes this audiobook worth a listen even if the book was terrible. Thankfully, it's not.
Listen to it for the sake of listening, or read it for the sake of reading. Isn't that, after all, enough?