Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Love Among The Ruins

I could pretend that there was some high literary motive behind my choice to read Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins, but the fact is that when I saw that the story opened in a tiny village on the Ligurian coast of Italy I couldn't resist. I was there in May and was happy for a chance to revisit that beautiful setting. And the first chapter pulled me right in. In the tiny (imaginary) village of Porto Vergogna, at the south end of Cinque Terre, a handsome, hunky, bare-chested, aqua-eyed Italian named Pasquale watches the arrival of a small boat carrying a beautiful blonde American actress. She has come to this remote cliff-side village to stay at its only pensione, the Hotel Adequate View, run by Pasquale's family. The year is 1962 and the actress has fled from Rome, where she had a small part in the infamous movie “Cleopatra” with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, because she has been told that she is dying.

Chapter 2 leaps forward nearly fifty years, to the Hollywood office of legendary film producer Michael Deane, where his assistant Claire is listening to a young man deliver possibly the worst movie pitch ever (the film's title “Donner!” tells you all you need to know), at the same time as she tries to sort out the motives of an old Italian man clutching a wrinkled, stained business card with Michael Deane's name on it.

The story continues to leap back and forward in time, to locations as disparate as Edinburgh, Seattle, Florence and even Sand Point, Idaho. On one level it's a witty, entertaining story that exposes the seamy side of Hollywood. But it's also a meditation on the price of fame, the power of art and the endurance of love. It's a good choice for a beach read, even if your beach isn't in Italy.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Family Ties

Is it just a coincidence that in the last year I have read three novels that began with a wedding? Is this a literary convention? I'll admit that it is a handy way to get all your main characters together in a situation where the combination of stress/passion/alcohol may well trigger dramatic scenes. In the previous two – Jean Thompson's “The Year We Left Home” (Leaving Home) and Johnathan Dee's “The Privileges (How The Other Half Lives) – the weddings served as vehicles to launch characters into adulthood, but in Carol Anshaw's Carry The One a single powerful event on the night of the wedding alters the lives of all the characters in the novel.

Does tragedy bind people more closely than passion? The three Kenney siblings – bride Carmen, her brilliant but fragile brother Nick, and her older sister Alice, a talented painter – all have desires which pull them in different directions, but they are drawn together. Surviving a common childhood with parents who waiver between indifference and malevolence helps explain this bond. And they share the same crackling sense of humor. But for twenty-five years all their lives are colored by the same tragic accident, and each compensates in a different way.

Anshaw's humor and sympathy makes this book far more entertaining and less depressing than it may sound from my description. Her portrait of the complex network of emotions that ties the siblings to each other and to their shared tragedy is honest and powerful.

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Weight of History

In the beginning it seems simple enough. Sam Leroux, a writer and academic, comes to the Cape Town home of aging South African writer Clare Wald, who has reluctantly agreed to allow him to write her biography. Yet even in the opening chapters of Patrick Flanery's Absolution there are hints that there is more between these two than either of them is ready to admit.

The story advances in fits and starts, as the chapter narratives alternate points of view. It is clear when the narrative voice belongs to Sam or Clare, but at times other, conflicting, accounts appear, and it's only as the book progresses (accompanied by much flipping pages backwards on my part), that the source of each voice becomes clear.

And what Sam and Clare are describing is incredibly powerful and unsettling. The story is set in present day South Africa, but the violence and terror of apartheid has saturated both their lives. I was familiar with only the broad strokes of this era of South Africa's history, so I found Flanery's descriptions of the horrific events and the oppressive atmosphere disturbing and riveting. Both Clare and Sam keep revisiting pieces of their pasts, trying make sense of history and of their personal lives, haunted by guilt.

Flanery's does not make excuses for his characters but he does not judge them. He does makes it clear how difficult it can be to receive absolution.