Book review Monday: Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter
Warning: This book review contains (minor) spoilers. Proceed with caution.
A few weeks ago, my Kindle broke. This was an emergency of epic proportions, as I rely on my Kindle to get me through even the shortest moments of boredom: standing in line, riding the bus, waiting for my coffee to filter, lulls in conversation with Al — you get the idea. When it broke, I was in Edinburgh, and, in an odd coincidence, I had also broken my iPhone screen that day and had to go to the mall to get it fixed, so I popped into the mall’s bookstore and stocked up on paperbacks to tide me over until I could get my Kindle fixed. Now, I’m happy to report, I have a new Kindle, and I finished the paperbacks I bought to fill the gap.
One of these paperbacks was Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter. I picked it up in the store without knowing anything about it, mostly because I liked the cover, which shows a 1960s-ish looking couple gazing toward (if not directly at) each other, backed by a seaside cliff dotted with little houses. So, you know, I judged a book by its cover.
The verdict? I liked it. It was a quick, fun read, but there was emotional power behind it. Walter pulls together several interconnected narratives, taking place at different points in time, to weave a complex story about regret, love, and ambition. The emotional heart of the story lies with Dee Moray, a young American actress who, in 1962, while an extra on the set of Cleopatra, falls pregnant but is told she is dying. Thinking she has little time left, she travels from Rome to Porto Vergogna, a tiny, ramshackle Italian town just outside of Cinque Terre. There, she stays in the Hotel Adequate View, which is overseen by the shy and dreamy Pasquale Tursi. Theirs is not a love story, necessarily — they both have other complications in their lives that prevent a traditional romance from taking place — but their relationship, while short, is meaningful, and creates ripples that stretch fifty years into the future, when they finally meet again.
There are other characters in the book who play a role in Dee and Pasquale’s story, and who are living out their own complicated stories of love and loss, as well. There’s Claire, the “executive assistant” to Michael Deane, a coldhearted and eccentric Hollywood filmmaker. There’s Shane, an unsuccessful but ambitious screenwriter who’s determined to make an epic film about the Donner Party called “Donner!”. There’s Pat, Dee Moray’s grown son, who struggles with addiction. And there are other characters, some of whom enter in one part of the story and reemerge in surprising ways later on. The book, while light and fast-paced, is not an ephemeral beach read; it has something deeper to say about the choices the characters make and the lasting effects of those actions.
One of the things I enjoyed most about Beautiful Ruins, though, was a brief interview with the author, Jess Walter, in the back of the book. In it, Walter talks about his writing process. And if there’s one thing I love, as a writer, it’s reading about other writers’ processes and understanding how they think about character, plot, pacing, and all of the other elements that make a story click. Walter has a lot of interesting things to say about writing, and the specific details of how he came to write this particular novel, but one of the things I found most interesting were his remarks on the importance of character in a story or a novel. The interviewer asked him what he thought the difference was between embarking on writing a short story versus a novel. Walter replied:
The embarking is always the same. Early to the desk. Fingers on the home keys. Coffee and a giant cookie. I don’t usually know where I’m going until I get some pages. I have a thousand ideas for stories but I tend not to know much about them when I start, even whether it’s a story or a novel. … Then I just write, figure out who these people are, why they’re doing what they’re doing. I think character is elemental; if you pay attention to the people, you’ll get the action right.
I love a lot about this answer (including the bit about the coffee and the giant cookie), but the thing I found most helpful was his comment about figuring out characters’ motivations before building action. I had never thought about it that way before, but it makes perfect sense. Characters in a story, like people in real life, act the way they do because of something. People don’t just do things or say things; there are reasons behind every action. Those reasons might be totally bonkers or self-defeating or evil, but they exist, and it’s important, as a writer, to understand what they are. When I first read this interview with Walter, I was finishing up a short story that I was pretty pleased with. But then I looked back on it and started to wonder about one of the characters’ motivations. Why is she doing that? I wondered. Why would she behave that way? That line of inquiry opened up a whole new window onto my story and allowed me to add depth and realism to it — it even ended up changing what happened in the end, because once I understood why the characters were doing what they were doing, I could more easily imagine how the action between them would progress. I’m grateful to Jess Walter for this extremely helpful tidbit; even though it may seem obvious, it’s something that I had never considered before while writing a story or a novel.
On that note, I need to finish editing the aforementioned story and ship it off to various publications in the hopes that someone will publish it. Thank you, Jess Walter, for the inspiration!