Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
Hardcover; 352 pages
Hardcover; 352 pages
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. Gloriously inventive, constantly surprising, Beautiful Ruins is a story of flawed yet fascinating people, navigating the rocky shores of their lives while clinging to their improbable dreams.
In Beautiful Ruins there are several storylines and captivating characters that are introduced. Pasquale Tursi is a young man who, after his father's death, is now the owner of his family's pensione, "Hotel Adequate View," in the small Italian port village of Porto Vergogna or "Port of Shame." In April of 1963, young American actress Dee Moray is brought to his inn, being told that she is dying from stomach cancer. She had a small part in the cinematic juggernaut that was the film Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, before she became ill. She was sent there by a young assistant, Michael Deane.
Fifty years after this chance encounter, Pasquale shows up in Hollywood, looking for Michael Deane, but instead meets his assistant, Claire Silvers, along with an aspiring young writer, Shane Wheeler. We are also introduced, through his writing, to another aspiring author, Alvis Bender, who vacations yearly at the Hotel Adequate View where he works on his book about his experiences in WWII. Later we meet Dee's son, Pat, as well as others. Several of the characters are writers (plays, novels, film ideas) and Walter inserts excerpts of their creative work into the story as part of the novel.
Clearly, there is quite a list of characters and the novel jumps back and forth in time. Lest you begin to think that the numerous characters might become burdensome to keep track of, let me assure you that it was really a pleasure to follow all these various strands to their ultimate connection and conclusion. In many ways Beautiful Ruins highlighted how fate can play a role in people's lives and their relationships to each other. And I don't want to say too much more about the plot for fear I will spoil if for you.
The epigraph in Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter includes a quote from Louis Menand in The New Yorker: "[Dick] Cavett's four great interviews with Richard Burton were done in 1980. . . . Burton, fifty-four at the time, and already a beautiful ruin, was mesmerizing." Thus, we are introduced to one source for the title of this beautiful and mesmerizing novel. Another beautiful ruin is Italy. And another is found in the characters.
The writing in Beautiful Ruins is a sheer pleasure to read. It is at times: suspenseful, romantic, tragic, comic, heart-breaking, and mysterious.
It is an intelligent, discerning, entertaining novel that I would encourage everyone to read.
Very Highly Recommended
Jess Walter is the author of the national bestseller The Financial Lives of the Poets, the National Book Award finalist The Zero, the Edgar Award-winning Citizen Vince, Land of the Blind, and the New York Times Notable Book Over Tumbled Graves. He lives in Spokane, Washington, with his family.
The paperback edition of Beautiful Ruins is being released on 4/2/2013.
Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of this book from HarperCollins and TLC for review purposes.