Monday, January 28, 2013

January Book Review: Beautiful Ruins

Book Review: Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter
My rating:    

Not only did I finish Beautiful Ruins over two weeks ago, but I've also read two "bonus books" for January since then. Brag, brag, brag. In addition, my March selection of J.K. Rowling's A Casual Vacancy was just brought home from the library and I can't wait to start it! (Sadly, Sweet Tooth is on hold by like 49,573 people at the library, so as I predicted we will be flip-flopping February and March selections. No biggie.) A Casual Vacancy is actually serving as my motivation to write this book review. I've decided I won't allow myself to move on to next month's book without putting some thoughts on paper. Otherwise, it will end up like my journal entries from our trip to Greece in October... forever procrastinated about and unfinished.

So - on to the book and a few general reflections. Beautiful Ruins was hailed -- on its front cover -- by NPR as "a literary miracle." I don't know the exact context of that comment, or exactly what "a literary miracle"entails to that reviewer. I do not think this book is a literary miracle. What it is, however, is a pretty creative plot idea, delivered in a mildly distracting manner. If you'd like a very good summary of this plot, please see the Sunday NY Times Review. Be warned -- that review made me like the book more than I did when I set out to write my own review. But seriously -- go read it, because nothing I say below will really make sense other wise.

Here we have to step off topic for one second, before I rant about particulars. I have always had significantly less love for books told from multiple -- and in this case I do mean multiple -- perspectives. For my linear brain, it truly interrupts the flow of the story. Two perspectives I can handle well, and I accept that some stories really need more than one voice to perform adequately. The more voices you add, however, and the more distracted I become. When I compare this style to that of my favorite John Irving, who can weave an intense and complex "literary miracle" all narrated by one consistent character, I struggle to understand why someone would write any other way. I realize this is a completely subjective and personal issue I take with novels, but it's my blog, my review, and my opinion. I happen to like starting out on a journey, and sticking with the same "friend" the whole way. Otherwise, I'm not sure who to trust or believe, and why.

Noting the above paragraph, it is no surprise that this book DROVE ME CRAZY at times. With no less than seven different narrating characters (I think I counted all of them), four more consistent than the other three who really just made cameos, I got so irritated about the lack of progression in the story, as it felt like we were always detouring to introduce a new character voice. This irritation was compounded by the fact that while the plot basis is really quite creative, the ending is really quite predictable. There weren't a lot of surprises once the book got going, just a lot of "bravado," if you will. With all the creative styling (see below) stripped away, the plot had real potential to be mind-blowing if the author had fleshed out the characters a bit more.

In addition to the multiple narrators, the time frame begins in the 1960's, jumps to present day, and then back and forth to the 1960's, 70's, 80's -- well, you get my drift -- in no particular order. This also didn't help me stay on the rollercoaster very well. I spent some time wondering if the bits surrounding Richard Burton & Elizabeth Taylor were even feasible, and had to stop and look it up on Wikipedia to make sure it worked out theoretically. Finally, the "narrators" don't just narrate and their perspectives aren't delivered in first person, and here is where what I both love and hate about this book comes into play. Walters has a lot of fun inserting chapters of fictional books, screenplay scenes, journal entries, etc, in place of actual narrative chapters. One of the chapters is devoted entirely to a screen play pitch about "Donner!" -- a Hollywood version of The Donner Party. Another, to a playwright's "Part IV" of a play in three acts. Yet another, to the first chapter of a memoir that was never published. It's really a fascinating undertaking, and I applaud the effort and imagination it must have taken. I was impressed. I also made me sort of tired trying to keep up and "hang in there."

I liked the idea a lot. I wanted to really love the book. I'll settle for three out of five stars.

January Bonus Books:
Bossypants, by Tina Fey (   ) 
Wildwood, by Colin Meloy (  ☆)

★ - Hated it.  ★ - Didn't like it.  ★ - Liked it.  ★ - Really liked it.  ★ - Absolutely loved it.

No comments:

Post a Comment