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Book Review: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

A book that combines the stunning settings of 1960’s Italy and present-day Hollywood, and throws in legendary actor Richard Burton as a character? It sounds strange, but Jess Walter makes it work, prompting none other than his fellow writer Richard Russo to call it a “masterpiece.” The colorful cover sets the mood of the sleepy setting: a small, almost-forgotten seaside town in Italy with which all plot lines in this novel eventually connect. This is a novel that takes the reader on a journey of fate.

Pasquale is a young Italian who returns from college in Florence to his village to run the hotel his parents owned, after they both die within months of one another. He has pipe dreams of making Porto Vergogna (which means “port of shame” in Italian) a sexy tourist destination, complete with a tennis court he plans (in his head) to build out of the cliffs; never mind that most of these ideas will not be feasible. The hotel is called The Hotel Adequate View. It was named by their most loyal customer, an American writer named Alvis Bender who has visited every year since Pasquale was a child, under the guise that he is working on a novel. But, true to his name, his real goal just seems to be drinking. One of the surprises in the book happens when the reader is presented with one chapter of Bender’s novel in its entirety—a “story within a story” moment about World War II that just enthralls.

It is 1962, and Hollywood has invaded Italy in the form of the cast and crew of the movie Cleopatra—yes, the one that went millions over budget and elevated celebrity gossip (Dick and Liz!) to new levels. Pasquale stands to make a pretty penny if he can get some of that element to patronize his hotel. One day he is daydreaming and watching the sea when a beautiful blonde dressed in flowing white pulls up in a boat, and her assistant checks her into the hotel. Dee Moray is an actress who had a small role in the film, but has been sent away on the auspices that she is sick and needs treatment, but rest first. The few village locals have never seen the likes of this tall, striking blonde, and of course Pasquale, who speaks a bit of English, connects with her. Their connection goes beyond any possible physical attraction. Pasquale is such a dreamer and a good guy that he wouldn’t think of taking advantage of this vulnerable girl (and he ends up trying to defend her honor).

The parallel plot always gives the reader quite the insight into Hollywood in the 2000s. Claire Silver is a young, impassioned but disillusioned development assistant who works for Michael Deane, an aging plastic-surgery addict who used to be quite the big deal in Hollywood (with connections that go back to the Cleopatra debacle). Claire is in a going-nowhere relationship with a dense pretty-boy actor, and she knows she has sold her soul, but efforts to work on meaningful projects in Tinsel Town go unrealized. Deane has hit the jackpot in the sleazy reality TV biz, so Claire’s hope of developing the next great film seems impossible. But then, in comes Shane Wheeler who wants to make a pitch about a movie about the Donner Party, and it’s accepted, but not exactly on his terms.

This is where it becomes evident that Walter has really done his research about the inner workings of the Hollywood studio business, and it’s fascinating. And who is this older Italian man who has shown up looking for Deane? Whatever happened to the striking Dee Moray? Pasquale? Bender? Who is the down-and-out musician we meet who is trying to have a comeback in his 40s by going to Scotland to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival? Who is his father? The answers, along with twists and turns and pure charm can be obtained by picking up this engaging book.

Beautiful Ruins doesn’t take the reader to just one setting, but several, through the span of 50-odd years: Italy, Hollywood, the American west, and Scotland. The characters all intertwine, and part of the fun is seeing how they all come together in this life, attached to a story that began in Italy in that quiet burg overlooking the Mediterranean. Walter manages to capture characters who are dreamy, ridiculous, shallow, deep, sensitive, snarky, humble, pathetic, and heroic all in one novel, and when the reader arrives at the end of their journeys with them, a void will be felt. Walter offers the reader many rewarding and surprising details in this finely crafted book (the reader gets to feel like a bit of an insider regarding the Cleopatra connection). And the iconic Richard Burton is just a secondary character (but so pivotal), but Walter captures him so completely that the reader can certainly see him riding a private boat on the Mediterranean.

So what are these “ruins” that the title foreshadows? In the book, they seem to reference life itself, as looked back upon by older characters like Dee and Pasquale and Michael Deane. And Walter captures the ruins of Italy after WWII so poignantly in Bender’s chapter. We all have our ruins. Walter captures these characters’ ruins and weaves them in with the ruins of setting in a masterful piece of storytelling.

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