Saturday, January 26, 2013

Beautiful Ruins

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
(Harper, 2012)
Format: audio download via Audible (narrated by Edoardo Ballerini for Harper Audio)

From Goodreads: "The story begins in 1962. On a rocky patch of the sun-drenched Italian coastline, a young innkeeper, chest-deep in daydreams, looks out over the incandescent waters of the Ligurian Sea and spies an apparition: a tall, thin woman, a vision in white, approaching him on a boat. She is an actress, he soon learns, an American starlet, and she is dying.

And the story begins again today, half a world away, when an elderly Italian man shows up on a movie studio's back lot--searching for the mysterious woman he last saw at his hotel decades earlier.

What unfolds is a dazzling, yet deeply human, roller coaster of a novel, spanning fifty years and nearly as many lives. From the lavish set of Cleopatra to the shabby revelry of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Walter introduces us to the tangled lives of a dozen unforgettable characters."

I abandoned this novel after a couple of pages and only went back to it because it's on the 2013 Tournament of Books list. Since a couple of people had mentioned the quality of the audio, I used one of my Audible credits for it, and gave it another try. Boy am I glad I did. Let that be a lesson to me about judging too soon. 

So, there's the innkeeper Pasquele, who's the driving force, the pure-hearted guy with a couple of not-so-pure moments in his past. His encounter with the actress Dee, though only a couple of days in their lives, affects them both profoundly for decades to come. And not just them - there are webs radiating out across continents, in their gentle but insistent ways. There are multiple time frames and story lines here, and they play together nicely. I kept wishing the different characters could impart their lessons to each other, even if they were no where near each other in time or space, which was an interesting game to play as I read. (Listened. Whatever you want to call it.) It all pulled together into a rich, fun, smart tale that touched on desire, identity, heritage, memory, ambition, beauty, and loss. Just lovely.

Ballerini is a new-to-me narrator, and I enjoyed him ever so much. The Italian accents were charming, and his handling of many different Hollywood types (producer, writer, actors) felt spot-on. I do think that if I'd given the print version another chance, I'd have devoured Walter's novel for its own sake, but this is one of those narrations that truly enhances the experience of the book.

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