The Short Version: During the filming of Cleopatra, a young actress’ life changes drastically and irrevocably in a town on the Italian coast. In the relative present, the players from that fateful time (as well as some youngsters along for the ride) are trying to find each other again – and complete the story begun all those years ago.
The Review: I’ve never read Jess Walter before, despite his having been one of those authors who people continually say “oh, you really ought to read him” – not in the way that they look at me with horror when I say I haven’t read a particular classic author (and, hey, I’m working on it) but just the casual recommendation of an author has achieved that particular status, if you know what I mean. So, when he finally cracked the ToB, it seemed like fate had brought us to that crucial moment. Of course, it ended up being a delayed moment – I wanted the really lovely Penguin UK paperback cover (see above) as opposed to the still-lovely but somewhat meh US cover, so I had to wait for it to come out and then to arrive, etc etc.
Anyway, not the point. The point is… I feel, with this book, much like I felt with Jonathan Tropper’s This Is Where I Leave You. I think it was the movie-esque feeling about the book, although this one also very much leans into that in an almost potentially winking way. See, most of the characters are in pictures! And as a result, movies are sort of an inescapable “write your final paper on this” sort of thing in the book. So, yeah, I naturally would be curious to see the actual film of this story – because it’d probably be a decent Thanksgiving-release good-for-the-fam sort of movie.
But that also… I wouldn’t say that’s a good thing, necessarily. I didn’t dislike the book – far from it – but there’s a level of split focus that bothered me a bit. Walter does some really cool stuff here, like spinning off entire chapters (or sometimes less) to explore excerpts of certain other fictional creations from the world of the story. That was actually undoubtedly my favorite part of the book: flipping to page to find the first chapter of Alvis’ book or of Deane’s book or the pitch of Donner! – it showed Walter’s faculty with form and I, as a writer of different things from time to time, really enjoyed it. But it also, in a way, undercut the potential power of the book and drove home its vaguely gimmicky – no, that’s the wrong way to put it, I’m sorry… its vaguely commercial appeal. We’re not talking Nicholas Sparks commercial but… this feels like the sort of book my old bosses at CAA would read and say “hey, let’s make a picture!”
Except no one, unfortunately, talks like that anymore.
The characters of Pasquale and Dee are the most interesting, without a doubt – and I think they’re well and truly meant to be that way. They are the “main” characters, even though the book diverts us into other characters’ minds and moments. I appreciated that, for the way it broadened the world, but as the book wound down I felt as though the main plot (or what I took to be the main plot) had gotten a bit of a short shrift. But it’s a quibble – it’s how I might’ve written the book and so, meh, whatever. Seeing these other characters is still mighty enjoyable and they’re all quite interesting in their own rights. Pat, especially, would be an interesting character to see go off and do other things. His story, which felt at first so disparate from the rest, dovetailed nicely by the end and he felt like the most changed character at the close of the book. Claire, Deane, the writer kid, etc… they all felt a bit like plot devices. Yes, there was character “development” but most of it felt rather signpost-y and simple.
But isn’t there a place for these simple pleasures? I think so. The world will not live or die based on the actions and reactions of these characters, whether in the 60s or the present – but their worlds might. And that’s what makes it fun to read this book: we can take a true respite from the madness that surrounds us and, instead, just enjoy the simplest of storytelling pleasures: whether or not the boy and girl will get together. Because we’re rooting for them, even as heroes of life like Richard Burton make their guest appearances (hilariously, by the way) – and Dee & Pasquale make real tough choices and while they sometimes seem a bit overly cinematic… well, who hasn’t pretended they’re the lead in the film of their life?
Oh and speaking of – the ending is straight-out-of-Hollywood style “here’s what happened to the characters next”. So I really wasn’t kidding when I said that it feels like a movie in book form. Take that as you will.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. I enjoyed this book but I also felt it to be a bit slight – like a good rom-com that you see on a date, maybe buy on DVD for stay-at-home date-nights… but that doesn’t really change much about your life. Walter is a talented writer, turning some beautiful and some funny phrases… but ultimately, I didn’t get much more than a lovely sunny summer read out of this. Seeing as it has been in the 90s of late, though, that feels just about right. I wouldn’t’ve traded it in this moment for anything – so just time your read properly and you’ll drift away like a boat on the water off Porto Vergogna.