Published: June 12, 2012
Genre: Historical Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Source: Postal Book Club
The story begins in 1962. On a rocky patch of the sun-drenched Italian coastline, a young innkeeper, chest-deep in daydreams, looks out over the incandescent waters of the Ligurian Sea and spies an apparition: a tall, thin woman, a vision in white, approaching him on a boat. She is an actress, he soon learns, an American starlet, and she is dying.
And the story begins again today, half a world away, when an elderly Italian man shows up on a movie studio's back lot—searching for the mysterious woman he last saw at his hotel decades earlier.
What unfolds is a dazzling, yet deeply human, roller coaster of a novel, spanning fifty years and nearly as many lives. From the lavish set of Cleopatra to the shabby revelry of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Walter introduces us to the tangled lives of a dozen unforgettable characters: the starstruck Italian innkeeper and his long-lost love; the heroically preserved producer who once brought them together and his idealistic young assistant; the army veteran turned fledgling novelist and the rakish Richard Burton himself, whose appetites set the whole story in motion—along with the husbands and wives, lovers and dreamers, superstars and losers, who populate their world in the decades that follow.
This is one of those books that has been near the top of my TBR list for over a year, but it kept getting pushed aside for other books. Then, I received a copy through one of my postal book clubs and had to read it...and I'm so thankful that I did.
I have to admit that I was familiar with Jess Walter as a person, but not as an author before reading this. I listen to the podcast he does with Sherman Alexie and the two make a great pair. However, I couldn't quite picture the person from the podcast writing a story as chronicled in the summary. Luckily, it turns out that the man and the story merge perfectly.
Reading this book felt like an extravagant vacation--the reader goes to Rome, to a small village on the Italian coastline, to Hollywood, to Idaho, to London and Edinburgh, and to Beaverton (although that last one probably doesn't fall into the "vacation" category!). Obviously, this book is all over the place--not just geographically, but also chronologically. I was worried about that, but it did work for me in this case. I was able to follow all the story lines without any problem.
The characters are what really make this book work. I won't go into the specifics about each one (like story lines, characters abound here), but I will say that I found myself relating to all of them, including the one really unlikable (yet entertaining) character. Because there are so many people and story lines, Walter explores facets of the characters instead of developing the entire character. In another book, I would find this annoying. However, there is more than enough here so that Walter's approach is successful.
All in all, this was a lovely and satisfying book, with something for every reader. I would recommend it to anyone without hesitation.
I was not solicited for this review and I received no compensation for this post.