What Adam’s Reading: “Beautiful Ruins” by Jess Walter

11447921Well, January has come and gone – I blinked and it was over, which means everyone should be wrapped up with “Beautiful Ruins,” our first book club read of the year! In typical book club fashion, I pulled a couple of discussion questions below in the hopes to guide our conversations throughout the comments. I also wanted to give a typical “That Guy” review, similar to what you’ll find here. So, skip down to whichever section interests you most and check back tomorrow for the announcement of our pick for February!

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When choosing this book with my friend Alison, we were looking for an undeniable hit from 2012 that we hadn’t tackled yet. Appearing in most “Best of 2012” lists, the decision seemed easy.

Side note: My first choice would have been “Bring Up the Bodies” by Hilary Mantel but that’s a sequel so I’ll have to read the two installments in my spare time. 

What intrigued me about the plot was the fact that it spanned over multiple decades, usually ensuring depth of character and story, and claimed to be a great example of how chance encounters and impromptu relationships can influence individuals’ lives. The latter, I would agree with; the former, I would not.

Critics were right when referencing the scope of the book, but what they failed to elaborate on is that there are basically three instances when the protagonists interact with each other: late 1960s, on the set of Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor, early 1970s, and today. You’re filled in on the holes of their respective histories throughout the novel but very rarely is there dialogue between the main characters beyond their first encounter, making their relationships come off as superficial.

That’s why I fully agree in regards to the fact that this novel can be looked to as a literary interpretation of the “It’s a Small World” phenomenon: the moment when you have lost friends and acquaintances reappear in your life. It’s perfectly accurate to think that paths would cross at some point, but it’s somewhat presumptuous and cheesy to give them intense feelings for each other that would never be there in real life.

I don’t mean to make this book sound horrible, but in my mind it was just mediocre, especially going into it with such high expectations. I will say that the ending wraps the whole story up with a nice bright bow on top, leaving no doubt as to what happens to the heroes later on in life. Sometimes, it’s nice to not have cliffhangers.

Summary:

  • Grade: C. Really just an average story.
  • What’s it about: You meet five characters off the coast of Italy who are involved in the Elizabeth Taylor scandal on the set of Cleopatra. Fifty years later, they reunite, a whole life of memories and regrets between them.
  • Who should read this book: Someone who is interested in knowing what the hype is all about.
  • When should you read it: When you want a quick read that isn’t airport-quick.
  • Where to find it: Amazon.com for $18, still only available in hardback.

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This section is for all of you who read the book and want to talk about it. WARNING: SPOILER ALERTS! I found these questions more thought-provoking than others since they provided a new perspective. Feel free to answer the same ones or pick another from this list.

One of Jess Walter’s concerns in Beautiful Ruins is how real life intersects and influences art. Talk about the numerous ways that idea plays out in the novel.

This was something I didn’t notice until it was pointed out but when you think about it, every character was an artist, whether they be an actor, a author, a musician, a painter etc. Throughout the book, they’re constantly creating something and the output is reflective of their personal experiences:

  • Dee, as an actress, pulls emotions from the disappointment she feels at the turn her life took.
  • Alvis, the author, is writing about a moment he lived through during the war.
  • Shane, the screenplay writer, is using material (Donner!) from when he was a kid.
  • Michael Deane, the author, publishes a book outlining how to succeed in Hollywood, the same way he did.
  • Lydia, the actress/playwright, literally uses her and Pat’s lives as material.

The only person who this doesn’t apply to is Pasquale and when you dwell on it, it might be to emphasize his more earthly personality and real-life aspirations: have a family and settle down versus becoming rich and famous.

Of the seven main characters, which is your favorite? Least favorite (don’t all say Michael Deane)?

What I liked about this question is that Michael Deane was probably my favorite character. He’s the practical one, the smart one who is able to follow his instincts and be right. He learns from his failures and builds on his successes, taking one challenge at a time. I feel that most everyone in the book could have learned a thing or two from Deane and not been living with regrets. Dee Moray, Pasquale, Pat, Lydia – I’m looking at you!

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