In 1962, a boat arrives at Porto Vergogna on the Italian coast carrying Dee Moray, a dying actress. The beautiful young woman is greeted by Pasquale Tursi, the (even younger) owner of the only hotel in the tiny village. Over just a few days, the pair, one American and one Italian, form a deep emotional connection. Circumstances keep them apart until, fifty years later, Pasquale sets off to find her again.
That part of the story is rather lovely and represents the one thing I liked. Unfortunately, the rest of the novel depressed me, not because the story itself is depressing, but because everyone seems to love this novel and I wanted to love it, too. I feel out of step with most of the planet, much like the rare fan of Indian Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull must feel when everybody else starts bagging on it. So many things about this book irritated me, which is really a shame because the central story could have been compelling if the author had chosen to keep it simple.
In no particular order, the things I hated (SPOILERS):
The supporting characters are all annoying and two-dimensional
In chapter two we meet Claire Silver, a woman who quits a doctoral film studies program to become a production assistant to a major Hollywood producer and is surprised to discover the work isn’t fulfilling. We meet Daryl, her shiftless, “strip-clubbing boyfriend,” who she only dates, by her own admission, because he’s attractive. There’s Shane, who lives in his parents’ basement and hopes to pitch a Hollywood film, and Alvis Bender, an alcoholic novelist who has been working on the same chapter of his novel for years, a wannabe Hemingway. Eventually we meet Dee’s son Pat who at 15 is a destructive little shit and at 40-something is still clinging to the idea of his band making it big.
The idea, I think, is that all these “losers” are going to come together to drive this beautiful story forward. They are all annoying and, yeah, I’ll say it without the quotation marks, losers. They criss-cross paths through time and distance, but I just didn’t care about any of them. I don’t care that Claire helps Daryl quit his porn addition and they stay together. I don’t care that Pat finally matures and gets back together with his playwright girlfriend (Lydia, she’s ok). I really don’t care that Shane finds success in Hollywood via reality TV.
Which brings me to my next point.
Hollywood cynicism is too easy a target
Hollywood is ridiculous. We all know this. Unless a novel or a movie has some new insight into this topic, I’m not interested. Instead, the author illustrates what we already know about a soul-less industry at its worst. One character I didn’t mention above is Michael Deane, the movie producer who is involved in the central plot that introduces Dee and Pasquale and who then engineers circumstances that keep them apart. Deane is an over-Botoxed, viagra-popping, reality-TV producing Hollywood icon who makes a career of churning out crap. He’s grotesque and snake-like. His book (which was actually not the book he wanted to publish, but I’ll get to that) is titled The Dean’s Way: How I Pitched Modern Hollywood to America and How You Can Pitch Success Into Your Life Too, and includes the quote “Great film improves Truth. After all, what Truth ever made $40 million in its first weekend of wide release?”
Newsflash: Hollywood is about money.
The author talks down to the reader
Oh, nothing sticks in my craw like being talked to like an idiot and having everything spelled out for me. In one example, when Pasquale sees his ex-girlfriend with their child, and he ponders (I’m paraphrasing and also SPOILER), “Hmm, maybe I’m no better than that rogue Richard Burton who got that nice Dee Moray pregnant,” you can almost see the thought bubble appear over his head. He repeats this sentiment later, in case you missed it the first time.
The exposition is sloppy
Related to the point above, on page 239 of the novel, the author seems to suddenly get worried that you might not have been following the story, so he includes a chapter from Deane’s unpublished autobiography that conveniently explains everything (SPOILER). He lays the whole thing out: How when he was starting out in the biz, the film Cleopatra, starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, was in so much trouble that he was sent to fix things on set. How Dick and Liz would fight like cats and dogs, and at one point during a hiatus in their relationship, Burton got a young actress whom he’ll call “D” pregnant. How they lied to Dee and told her she had stomach cancer, and planned to send her to Switzerland for an abortion that they were somehow going to perform on D without her knowing. How they sent D out of town to some little hole in Italy for a few days to get her out of the way, except then a guy from the hotel showed up and somehow found Burton and took him to D. How then Deane had to go fix that, too. And when he finally managed everything and he’s leaving the fishing village with Burton, an old woman (this would be Pasquale’s aunt) chased their boat screaming “Murderer! I curse you to death!”
Why would a person include so much detail in the opening chapter of his memoir? No other reason than to catch the reader up and make sure they were following the story. Sloppy.
The different voices he uses in different chapters aren’t convincing
I like books within books and stories within stories, as long as they are convincing. I’m just not impressed with the way they are executed here. For example, in chapter 7, Shane pitches his idea for a screenplay, which is about a member of the Donner party. In chapter 18, we read an excerpt from a play called Front Man, which is about Pat and girlfriend/playwright Lydia’s relationship. One of them is supposed to be terrible and one is supposed to be awesome, but I could only tell which was which by the different audiences’ reactions. The only tip-off that Shane’s idea was supposed to suck is that he insists on an exclamation point after the title (Donner!), but otherwise it didn’t sound bad to me. I know I’m out of step with this novel, but I’d be willing to see a movie about the Donner party. His story sounded kind of like Revenant (albeit without the cannibalism), which was a critical and commercial success and earned an Oscar for Leonardo DiCaprio. But somehow that was supposed to be a ridiculous idea, while the play where a woman catches her boyfriend naked in bed with another woman and he responds by saying “So. . . I guess a threesome’s out of the question” is supposed to be poignant.
The various stories–Alvis Bender’s one chapter from his novel, Shane’s pitch, Deane’s books–all ran together for me.
The sex scenes are laughable
From Alvis Bender’s novel: “. . . and I buried my face between those breasts as if her skin were my home, as if Wisconsin lay there, and to this day, it is the greatest place I have ever been, that narrow ribbed valley between those lovely hills.”
Thankfully there isn’t much sex in this novel.
Could we pile on a little more tragedy?
This novel includes (SPOILERS): unplanned pregnancies, sexual assault, assisted suicide, cancer, and a fatal car crash. All we need is a snake bite and we’ve got ourselves a Thomas Hardy novel.
I have a big problem with this particular message
As Claire watches Lydia’s play, she thinks about her relationship with her own boyfriend (emphasis is the author’s): “. . . hopeless, irredeemable Daryl, the boyfriend she can’t seem to let go of. Maybe all love is hopeless. Maybe Michael Deane’s rule is wiser than he knows: We want what we want – we love who we love.”
NO, CLAIRE! If you are using someone else’s art and life experience to justify your own codependent relationship, you are truly an idiot of gigantic proportions. Shane is also inspired to reach out to his ex-girlfriend Saundra and get back together with her, but fortunately she hasn’t seen the play and hasn’t been brainwashed into re-entering a toxic relationship.
Early in the novel, Alvis Bender says, “Our stories go in every direction, but sometimes if we’re lucky, our stories join into one, and for awhile, we’re less alone.” That is a lovely message. Sadly, if that line weren’t included, I wouldn’t have known that was the point.