Thursday, March 14, 2013

Tournament of Books - Walter vs. Miller

Beautiful Ruins vs. The Song of Achilles

"Life is a blatant act of imagination."

So Jess Walter tells us in the early pages of Beautiful Ruins.  And really, both books in this round are imagined stories of "real" and "mythological" creatures, characters we have some level of familiarity with but might have explored in-depth before.

In The Iliad, the character of Achilles is devastated by the death of his comrade/friend Patroclus, and Miller explores the history of that emotional response in The Song of Achilles.  She explores the idea of a romantic relationship quite believably, starting with a boyhood friendship after Patronclus is banished from his home.  In Beautiful Ruins, we are introduced to characters on the periphery of Elizabeth Taylor and one of her husbands, alternating between Porto Vergogna (a tiny town in the rocks outside Cinque Terre) in 1962 and present-day Hollywood.

Hearing it described as so rooted in Greek mythology, I waited to read The Song of Achilles for a long time, waiting until after it had already won the Orange Prize for Fiction.  The last time I read The Iliad was in high school, and I worried I would be lost.  On the contrary, this was very readable, and I zoomed through it in an afternoon.  I felt myself feeling along with Patronclus as Achilles starts down his path of heroism.  In that particular year of the Orange Prize though, there were at least two books that I thought were more weighty, would stick with me more, and I thought the Miller would not stand my own test of time. 

Beautiful Ruins was also read and vetted by others before I got to it.  I enjoyed the reading experience, and have heard the audio version is amazing (I wish I'd listened to it instead!). 

I rated both 4/5 stars, but I'm not sure either of these novels will be in my mind for long.  I think I'll give the win to Beautiful Ruins, since the crafting of the story is more complex and Song of Achilles just follows one storyline front to end.

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