Book Review: Beautiful Ruins

Beautiful Ruins
Beautiful Ruins

“This is what happens when you live in dreams, he thought: you dream this and you dream that and you sleep right through your life.”Jess Walter

Last week I was scanning my considerable "to read" list and Beautiful Ruins was filed as a decent "beach read," so I thought I'd give it a try for Memorial Day.

As it turns out, the book was a bit of guilty pleasure for me.

In case you don't make it to the end of the post, I liked the book for some narrow reasons, but I also felt it had some flaws which were tough to overlook.

What I enjoyed most was the insider Hollywood commentary.  Clearly Jess Walter has spent  time in Southern California. He writes about the entertainment world I inhabit and he does so with laser-like accuracy.

“To pitch here is to live. People pitch their kids into good schools, pitch offers on houses they can’t afford, and when they’re caught in the arms of the wrong person, pitch unlikely explanations. Hospitals pitch birthing centers, day cares pitch love, high schools pitch success . . . car dealerships pitch luxury, counselors self-esteem, masseuses happy endings, cemeteries eternal rest . . . It’s endless, the pitching—endless, exhilarating, soul-sucking, and as unrelenting as death. As ordinary as morning sprinklers.”

Well, yes. This describes Los Angeles in a nutshell. Other insights were also accurate, but is this commentary interesting to most of the world?


Still, I appreciated the bits of wisdom his characters offered, sometimes in earnest:

“For years it was as if I was a character in a movie and the real action was about to start at any minute. But I think some people wait forever, and only at the end of their lives do they realize that their life has happened while they were waiting for it to start.”

and sometimes in humor.  For instance, one character, Alvis, always showed up at the same hotel every year to write. ("Adequate View Hotel" has a terrific back story on how it was named.)  When Alvis explained why he always stayed at the hotel, he said:

“A writer needs four things to achieve greatness, Pasquale: desire, disappointment, and the sea.” “That’s only three.” Alvis finished his wine. “You have to do disappointment twice.”

I found myself laughing and enjoying the jaunt through the story. The characters were mostly thinly cast, but that's what I expect in "beach reads."  I didn't even mind the disjointed structure of the narrative where every chapter happened in a different year and often on a different continent.  I can look past a lot of hiccups, but I was really hoping the book would give adequate, if not clever, endings to all of the assorted threads.

And that's where I felt cheated.

With only 20 pages left, much of the story was still up in the air. I couldn't imagine how Walker would pull it all together, and it turns out he doesn't.  Instead, he does the writer's equivalent of "where are they now" and offers a brief notation of how people's lives moved forward.

The final explanations were too pat and too predictable, even during sunscreen season.

I couldn't help but think he was working on a tight deadline and had to mail in the manuscript.  One of my favorite lines in the book is when a character reflects:

“Life, he thought, is a blatant act of imagination.”

Indeed.  I just wished the end demonstrated such a blatant act!