Release Date: June 12, 2012
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Rating: 5 out of 5
Book Summary: The story begins in 1962. Somewhere 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—blue as his eyes—and sees a vision: a slender blonde 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 it 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 fifty years before.
What unfolds from there is a dazzling, yet deeply human, roller coaster of a novel, peopled by Jess Walter’s trademark unforgettable characters: the Italian innkeeper and his mysterious beauty; the heroically cynical film producer who once brought them together, and his idealistic young assistant; and 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 pure Jess Walter—a novel full of flawed yet utterly relatable people, all of them reaching toward some impossible goal, leading us up a rocky shoreline path toward a future both distant and utterly familiar.
My Thoughts: Beautiful Ruins opens in the tiny coastal village of Porto Vergogna, Italy in 1962. Porto Vergogna is so small it doesn’t have a telephone and just one small hotel with 6 guest rooms and a cafe. The hotel belongs to the Tursi family and run by Pasquale Tursi, a young man who returned home from the University of Florence to care for his ailing mother when his father died eight months earlier. Life in Porto Vergogna is quiet and rather boring for Pasquale but, like his father, he’s come to believe in the potential of this backward spot on the Italian coast. Pasquale is determined to turn Porto Vergogna into a flourishing tourist destination. Pasquale is just one of the many colorful, delightful characters in Jess Walter’s terrific novel but he’s my favorite for his sweet, thoughtful character, his easy-going, good-natured demeanor and the many comedic situations he finds himself in including a long car ride with a drunk, loquacious Richard Burton.
Cleopatra is filming in Rome at the time Pasquale is building a beach in Porto Vergogna. A minor actress in the film, Dee Moray, arrives in Pasquale’s village suddenly one day, changing his life forever. Dee’s sent to Porto Vergogna under false pretences by the film’s producer, Michael Dean, a rather sleazy, despicable but also amusing individual. Pasquale looks up from his ‘beach’ to see her coming to shore by boat and he’s instantly smitten. Dee’s story is disturbing and shocking but, as Pasquale sadly learns over time, pretty typical for Hollywood. Although Dee is only in Pasquale’s life for a very short time, she has a major impact on his life. Pasquale learns much about himself, other people and the strength and power of love through Dee.
Pasquale never forgets Dee Moray. Fifty years after meeting her in Porto Vergogna, Pasquale travels to Los Angeles in search of Dee. He starts at the offices of Michael Dean one of the few men Pasquale’s punched in his life. His first encounter with Dean, in Rome fifty years ago, was aggravating and pushed the normally calm Pasquale to his breaking point. On behalf of Dee and to assuage some of his anger Pasquale let Michael Dean have it, surprising himself even more than Dean. It‘s a fantastic scene in this book. In present day LA, Pasquale puts aside his dislike of Dean and manages to remain calm in his presence despite some of the offensive things Dean says. It helps, but only slightly that Dean apologizes for his behavior fifty years ago. It helps much more that Michael Dean, who hasn’t thought of Dee Moray in fifty years, is willing to do whatever it takes to locate her for Pasquale. Dee’s story is a fascinating part of Beautiful Ruins and surprising in parts.
Jess Walter has filled this novel with a large cast of characters which, in another author’s hands might be the downfall of the book, but in Beautiful Ruins every character enhances the story. Walter constructs intriguing storylines, some extensive, others brief, for all of his characters, providing the necessary details to make them real and captivating whether they have a minor role or are central to the story. Some of these characters are likeable, some are despicable but almost all are unforgettable. Through these characters Walter emphasizes how individuals impact the lives of the people they interact with, whether for a short time or a lifetime.
Beautiful Ruins is a rich, alluring and exhilarating story. I hated to have to put it down but the best part of that was the excitement I felt when I could pick it up to read again. The story is difficult to classify because it offers such a gratifying variety of unexpected delights in its 340 pages. This novel is poignant, funny, disturbing, amusing, sad, heart-warming and full of surprising twists and turns. Each chapter is different and you have no idea what to expect from the next one. The various characters take you from Italy in the ’60s to modern-day LA to Seattle in the late ’70s and to 2008 in Edinburgh, Scotland. Other chapters provide you with a script for a movie, the chapter of a failed writer’s book and parts of Michael Dean’s horrid memoir. All the chapters make sense together in the context of the story. Read it, you’ll see!
The contrast between the worlds of Porto Vergogna and Hollywood is especially fascinating. These places are so different fron one another but also similar in ways. It's also captivating to see how the people in each world were shaped by their world. Walter brilliantly uses the filming of Cleopatra and the love stories that revolved around the making of this film, including the story of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, to bring the sordid world of Hollywood, with all its scandals and immoral behavior into the quiet, peaceful life of Pasquale on the coast of Italy and then to modern-day Los Angeles. Pasquale has his own story, some of which surprised me and disappointed me a little bit. We see an unexpected side of Pasquale, one that identifies him as a real man and human being.
Walter reminds us that people, at their core, are not that different from each other. One thing that's certain is love and relationships are complicated for every person. The heart wants what the heart wants and is often difficult, if not impossible, to control. But even in relationships that don’t involve romantic love, people impact each other everyday in good and bad ways. As Pasquale and Walter’s other characters show us, people make us angry, sad, joyful, confused, irritated, delighted, amused and they make us laugh. Jess Walter does all of that and so much more in this . Trust me, this is one book you don’t want to miss! I am so excited to read Jess Walter’s other books and to see what he gives us in the future.
exquisitely written novel
Jess Walter’s Website
Thank you to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to read and review Beautiful Ruins and to Harper for an ARC copy of the book.