Monday, September 29, 2014

Book Review: Beautiful Ruins

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter was my "break back into books that have happiness and light" read after the trauma of GoT. I think what drew me to it was the Italian connection (as I'm feeling a bit nostalgic for last year's Italy trip.)

I was not disappointed. The book had so many references to places, not just Italy, that I could relate to. One scene took me back to the Spanish Steps and the Trinita Dei Monti, standing at the top in front of the church with my sister, watching the sun set over Rome, the steps full of tourists and artists and moony-eyed couples. Later on, I was back at the train station in Florence, and on the banks of the Arno. The scenes on the Amalfi coast made me frustrated; Amy and I had grand plans to visit a resort town only 1 hour from Rome on our first day in Italy. These plans were foiled by our early arrival at our hotel, which wasn't ready for us or our luggage. I even got excited over a mention of Termini. Ah, Italy. There was also a moment set in the Spokane airport that made me smile; the description of its squeaky-cleanness, its tiny terminals and welcome sign to the "inland Northwest." Ah, Spokane, I love you as well.

I can't not quote one of my favorite passages. It's one from the character Dee Moray, the doomed actress who almost made it, was almost in a movie with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who almost ruined the movie Cleopatra with her brief affair and resulting pregnancy with none other than Richard Burton himself. Her only keepsake from what could have been (beside her son, of course) was a still photograph of herself and Elizabeth Taylor, laughing on set.

By then, Debra could almost wonder if the whole thing - Pasquale, the fishermen, the paintings in the bunker, the little village on the cliffs - hadn't been some trick of the mind, another of her fantasies, a scene from some movie she had watched.

Isn't it always like that? Remembering the scenes in your life - the trips, the hard times, the pregnancies, the friendships, the rainstorms in Italian cities - and wondering if they really happened to you.

It is hard to go anywhere in Italy without seeing ruins. I almost always was amazed by the beauty of the ruins; they were old, they were remnants and reminders from a long ago time. But how would the original inhabitants see the same ruins? Would they be inspired? Probably not. They would just look at what was left, remembering what had been and be sad. Pretty much how I would feel to see the remains of my home in some distant future.

Without giving away too much, I think that Beautiful Ruins was a long metaphor.  We all sort of live amongst the ruins of our lives: secrets, guilt, events that we regret or know we could have handled better, memories of people that make us wonder what would have happened if ____.  How we make up stories for people that we don't know, and sometimes we get it right, and other times, we couldn't be farther from the true events. I liked how it wrapped up all the loose ends in a not too tidy way. I like that it showed that sometimes, it's better to just let ruins be and not disturb them, while other times, we should pursue those loose ends that make us wonder. How we can learn from others mistakes to remedy our own lives.

I truly enjoyed this beautiful book and would recommend it.

And now, I need to put the Cinque Terre on my list of must-visit places.


Lucy said...

This was one of my favorite reads a couple of years ago and I was chagrined when so many, who read it after my gushing, hated it for being so vulgar. Like you, I was swept away by Italy, even though I have never been there, but more by the hope that from ugly and ruined can be beautiful. Either by change or acceptance of what it.

And I liked the scenes in Spokane too. It’s fun imagining that airport and drive down I-90 when you’ve done it too!

Great review.