By this point it feels like everyone has read this novel, and yet with all the reviews I read, I never quite got the impression that this novel was slightly humorous and even farcical on occasion. Instead, I just kept seeing words like "dying actress" and thought it was a very serious novel. Both of those descriptions don't quite describe what is going on as Walter mixes despair, tragedy, love and comedy into this story spanning almost seventy years.
The story begins in 1960s Italy, on a remote island, when a young, beautiful actress comes to stay at Pasquel's family inn. The area is so remote that Pasquel has only one regular customer, an American that comes every summer to work on his novel but spends more time drinking. As a result, Dee's arrival makes quite the splash. This narrative is the heart of the novel, involving old glamorous Hollywood since Dee is in Italy as a cast member of Cleopatra, a film more famous for its stars' explosive love life and being dramatically over budget than its quality. The novel basically refers to this being a turning point in Hollywood marketing as the scandal of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor was exploited to make money rather than swept under the rug.
This part comes out only slowly, and is intermixed with various other characters and their stories. There is Claire, an production assistant who has become disillusioned with Hollywood and her boyfriend, and Sean, a would be author whose parents have spoiled him rotten. Sean and Pasquale arrive at Claire's office at the same time, Pasquale to try to find out what happened to Dee, and Sean to pitch a movie about the Donner party. It is the scenes that focus on the present day workings of Hollywood that are particularly farcical and comical. A few other chapters are told from the perspective of an aging musician, and World War II veteran who remains haunted by his time in Italy.
This is one of those novels that I initially wanted to read very much only to push it off due to all the hype, afraid that perhaps I would miss something or have my expectations set too high. Since I had read some less than raving reviews by the time I got around to it, I think I was in the proper mood set for this, and was pleasantly impressed by the mix of all these intertwining lives and the final product. Walters does not try to make everyone smarter and better by the end of the novel, and he definitely still gently mocks the Hollywood industry, but the characters that are the true heart of the novel add enough humanity for this to be a touching piece of fiction without becoming too sentimental.