Book Recommendation: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
The ruins in Jess Walter’s novel range from the barely visited Hotel Adequate View, languishing in an obscure Italian port city, to an aging Hollywood producer whose face has been reshaped so many times he resembles a nine-year-old girl. The location and the man lie at the crux of Beautiful Ruins, which spans 50 years, multiple countries, and countless deceptions.
The novel opens in 1962 when Pasquale Tursi, proprietor of the Hotel Adequate View, spies a beautiful actress alighting off a boat in Porto Vergogna, a tiny town located in the Cinque Terre. The actress is Dee Moray, an American starlet who is in Italy to film Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Dee has just discovered that she has stomach cancer, and the film’s publicist, Michael Deane, has sent her away to Porto Vergogna with promises that he will retrieve her soon. Pasquale makes her comfortable at his hotel and, while the language barrier is significant, falls in love with her. Dismayed that the production company would leave her alone, Pasquale sets out to find Michael, who tells Pasquale that Dee doesn’t have cancer, but rather something else that Michael would prefer to keep under wraps.
The story then jumps ahead 50 years and lands in Los Angeles to introduce Claire Silver, an intelligent, ambitious development assistant with a beautiful but vapid boyfriend. Claire is ready to dump Daryl and quit her job working for Michael Deane when she meets Shane Wheeler, an aspiring screenwriter with a broken personal life who comes to Deane Productions to pitch “Donner!” a film about the Donner Party. The same day Wheeler meets with Claire, Pasquale Tursi arrives from Italy, determined to find out what happened to Dee Moray all those years ago. Pasquale, Claire, Michael, and Shane set off to learn what happened to Dee and along the way uncover truths about each other and themselves. As the story progresses, other characters emerge and Walter gives each a chance to tell the story from their perspective. He also incorporates text messages, screenplays, and other textual forms to narrate the story, which gives the text a layered feeling in which each character and chapter adds a new element of meaning.
Beautiful Ruins is a deeply romantic novel, partly due to the colorful lushness of Italy in the 1960s, and partly due to each character’s desire to pursue something—a dream, a person—that seems foolish to others. Walter’s writing feels effortless, but he captures idealism, heartbreak, and love with precision and humor. The novel will take you to the Technicolor days of Hollywood and back, before depositing you on the Italian shores; everything ends where it starts, but some of the beautiful ruins have been rebuilt.
Source: I buy my books at Unabridged Bookstore in my neighborhood.