It is time, once again (and if you’ve been here a while, you know what I’m going to stay) for me to continue on my quest to read every book about Italy written in the English language.
Now up: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. The novel opens on a small, remote Italian town where Pasquale, who has named the hotel he inherited The Adequate View, welcomes a dazzling stranger: Dee Moray, an American actress sent from the set of Cleopatra to recover from whatever is making her sick.
When the book started here, I was excited to dig in. I have long said someone should make a biopic about Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton swanning around Rome during their budding love affair. Even if the book wasn’t about exactly that, it was Italy! In the 1962! Let’s go!
But then the action skips suddenly to modern day (the book was published in 2012) Hollywood to Claire, an unhappy production assistant with a porn-addicted boyfriend. Over the course of the novel, these two stories are awkwardly knit together.
Some of the turns the plot takes along the way are so predictable I rolled my eyes, and others so outlandish that I did the same thing. I also kept thinking that if this book were published today, it’d be tossed on the stack of examples of “men writing female characters — badly.” Few of their decisions the women in this book, especially Dee and Claire, make make sense, except to see them in the framework of what a man would hope a woman would do in these situations.
Sometimes it even feels like Walter is plucking examples from his real life, and re-writing them in fiction to score some kind of backdated win. This is what a completely mediocre man Dee goes on a date with says to her when he drops her off: “I know I’m not your type. That’s fine. But I think you might be happier if you let people in sometimes.” And her response, in part, is this: “She stood there silently — broken, seething.” I’m sure Walter hope she’d feel “broken” by such a zinger, whoever experience he might be basing this on!
Walter also, too many times, writes about women’s breasts, using the term “tits” more than once. The men who say this are not supposed to be good people, but there are only so many times you can read “tits” and not get agitated. Didn’t you feel so reading the word twice in those two sentences? It reminded me of the recent SNL parody of the “I’m Just Ken” song with Pete Davidson, where he sings “I’m just Pete, and I like jugs/I’m mentally ill and I’m on drugs.” It’s funny because it is so ridiculous and in line with who he is, including that he’s brutally honest about his mental health and his addictions. He’s singing like that to lampoon himself. Walter’s use of similar terms just seems like lazy short hand to say “misogynist.”
I know that’s a lot to throw onto a 11-year-old book that got a lot of critical praise at the time it was published. But it felt very much Of Its Time, and doesn’t hold up today. This whole thing also shows why I read older books. Yes, of course, I read new stuff (and get paid to do so!) but it’s also worth looking back on popular books from recent history, especially from a time when I was trying to get footing in the same world, and ask “what the heck went wrong here?” And also, maybe, is this how male editors thought about me too?
The most compelling person in the whole book is Pasquale, and we barely spend any time with him. I wish Walter stuck to that little coastal town and The Adequate View. Maybe then this would be a book I’d have recommended.
Nail polish: Tasha by Zoya.
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