Sunday, May 04, 2014

What we're reading: Popular / literary fiction

There was buzz about Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter, when it first came out--it received many favorable reviews and made a lot of "best books of the year" lists in 2012--but like many new books, I didn't have a shot at it because it was in such demand by our patrons. Then it slipped off my radar, until I noticed it while retrieving another book from the "W"s the other day, so I finally was able to check it out.

The cover alone made me want to read it. Who doesn't want to visit, either vicariously or in real life, a place like the Cinque Terre? Although...the particular village in which this novel begins is a meager one, and that's being generous. Still, the opportunity to stay in a hotel named the "Adequate View" has its charms!

There's a lot to say about this book, because there's a lot of content to address, even though it's not that long a book, which was refreshing; containing all of it in 337 pages is a true testament to the author's skill. Settings--from the Italian coastline to the Sierra Nevada, from a Hollywood bungalow to the music scenes of Seattle and Edinburgh, to a little theater in the Rockies, this book travels a lot. It also travels in time, from 1962 to the present. There are the characters and their relationships--good and bad, ruined and enduring. There's a lot of emotion--both authentic and specious. There is social commentary, poking (in a mostly good-natured way) at the icons of pop culture--beauty, fame, endurance. It is a charming literary collage whose elements shine and glitter, stuck together by the glue of good and sometimes great writing.

In the synopses of this novel, much was made of the presence of actor Richard Burton, but really, his is only a cameo, albeit a charming one designed to give you a glimpse of the true power of the man and his aura. The real stars of the book are the fictional ones.

The one word I would use to describe this book is "rich." Rich in story, rich in ideas, rich in locales, characters, a wealth of intimate detail, a gorgeous richness of language--rich. I feel wealthier for having read it--it's one of those books that takes you into its experience and makes you feel it, feel the nuances of each character's growth and progression, their angst, self-betrayal and joy, feel the effects of relationship, era, and place, feel the wind in your hair as you ride in the smelly fishing boat to the tiny Italian village balanced in a crease of rocks above the sea…. I read this book slowly and deliberately (not by choice, as I usually take great hours-long gulps of fiction, but it was a busy week) and it was the perfect way to read it--allowing oneself to absorb the author's sequential vignettes that jump back and forth between the decades in which the entire tale is told. I loved it. I plan to read more of Jess Walter.

Those of you signed up for the Adult Summer Reading Club, with its theme of "Novel Destinations," might consider reading this book! The library offers it as an audio book and an e-book as well as in hardcover fiction.

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