I’m happy to report that Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter’s eighth book (seventh novel) lives up to every enthusiastic blurb that adorns its front and back covers, including accolades like “a literary miracle!” and “damn near perfect.” As a result of this victory, Walter is now my second-favorite guy with a girl name, though he remains behind reigning champion Ashley Wilkes from Gone With the Wind. (Because I mean, wasn’t he just so nice?)
Ruins opens on the Italian coast in 1962, in a nearly defunct fishing village where Pasquale Tursi—owner and proprietor of the only hotel—is busy rearranging rocks in an attempt to form a beach, which he hopes will draw tourists to the otherwise desolate town. As if summoned, there suddenly appears on the dock Dee Moray, a striking American actress who is spending a night in Porto Vergogna before traveling onwards to Switzerland, where she is slated to receive medical treatment for stomach cancer. Enamored of Dee’s beauty—and struck by her serendipitous arrival—Pasquale sets about getting to know her, and in so doing unearths a story whose ramifications span continents, decades and generations.
Indeed, Beautiful Ruins unfolds across time and space; the inaugural chapter in Porto Vergogna gives way to present-day Hollywood, where Claire Silver, the “chief development assistant” for a veteran film producer, is dreading a Friday spent listening to mind-blowingly bad pitches. Claire’s story introduces us to Shane Wheeler—a hapless screenwriter with an idea for a period film based on the Donner party. Through an interconnected web of these and other characters, we travel back and forth between Italy and Hollywood, 1962 and the present, to explore the trajectory of lives caught between what is and what might have been.
Despite the novel’s sprawling plot, Walter expertly peels away the layers of his story, and is adept at weaving in witty cultural commentary on such diverse topics as globalization, sexism and fame. What emerges is a compelling and beautiful narrative that doesn’t suffer for its occasional sidebars, mini-diatribes on subjects like plastic surgery, invasive technology or 21st century television. Rather, the book is better for these insightful and well-placed detours.
June has been a trying month, and I was in dire need of a compelling, epic story to distract me from my worries, work worries and family worries and run-of-the-mill “What if the ice caps melt and we all die?”/”What if aliens turn out to be mean?”/”What if CVS stops carrying my body spray?” worries. I needed a book that would peek at me from between its covers and say “Psssst, hey. Hey you. Look over here.” Beautiful Ruins does just that, and does it, well, beautifully.
TITLE: Beautiful Ruins
AUTHOR: Jess Walter
PAGES: 337 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: The Financial Lives of the Poets, The Zero
SORTA LIKE: A Visit from the Goon Squad meets The Keep
FIRST LINE: “The dying actress arrived in his village the only way one could come directly—in a boat that motored into the cove, lurched past the rock jetty, and bumped against the end of the pier.”