Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Review Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

The cover photo led me to believe this was going to be another summer romance set on the beautiful coast of Italy.  Instead, Jess Walter gives us two very complex interwoven stories: one set in 1962, at the time the movie Cleopatra was being filmed in Rome, and the other 50 years later. 

It begins
"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."

The central character, Pasquale Tursi is the owner of the Hotel Adequate View in Porto Vergogna Italy.  One day, as he is trying to build a tennis court on the cliffs of his small town, he sees a glamorous woman alighting from a small boat and making her way to his villa. 

Fifty years later, on the other side of the world in Hollywood, Claire Silver, executive assistant to big time, has-been, botox-bloated producer Michael Deane, is considering whether she will ever fulfill her own dream of being a producer when an aging Italian gentleman arrives in her office looking for a long lost movie star.

The story moves back and forth between the time periods, and is told from several points of view. There are almost too many characters to track in this broad and sweeping overview of the Cinque Terre region of Italy's Liguorian coast and of Hollywood's impact on each one's life.

Each member of this cast of flawed characters is a Beautiful Ruin: from real-life Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (the fictitious adventures here are eminently believable), to Shane Wheeler, a screen-writer wannabe whose rudimentary knowledge of Italian lands him an unexpected role in the adventures.  There is a shell-shocked veteran of WW II, Alvis Bender, who wants the simple life- to write a book and spend every summer as the only regular customer of Hotel Adequate View, befriending Pasquale and his lady friend along the way; there are delightful Italian villagers and fisherman; there's an Italian mother and maiden Italian aunt, all living with Pasquo and helping? impeding? his feelings for the beautiful lady.

There's Dee Moray, the dying actress herself and her ongoing story of a personality where naivete and spunk combine.  There's her son Pat Bender (is Alvis the father?) whose failing musical/poet career gives us a glimpse of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and it's boozy, drug filled underground.

The book cover proclaims this as a roller coaster of a novel, and that is exactly the term I would use.  Each chapter, going back and forth around the globe and through the years, yields a surprise, adds a layer of complexity (and often another character).  It is a book that constantly surprises, delights, dismays, and in the end leaves the rider (reader?) as breathless as one just stepping off a long and dizzying roller coaster ride.

It's as spectacular as the scenery that is so well portrayed.  The characters are as tragically lush as the scenery is beautiful.  The story is complex, well-developed, and written to keep the pages turning.  It's much more than a beach read, and one of 2012's best books.  If you missed it last year, as I did, be sure to put it in your vacation pile for this year. If you're an audio fan, this is well done by Edoardo Ballerini for Harper Audio.  You can close your eyes and imagine yourself on the Riviera.

Beautiful Ruins was one of 10 books on the Short List for the Maine Readers Choice Awards for 2012 books.  I loved it and thank Harper for making it available for those of us on the judging panel. It's definitely one for me to read again.

Title: Beautiful Ruins
Author: Jess Walter
Publisher: Harper (2012), First Edition, Hardcover, 352 pages;
Audio:  Harper Audio, 13 hrs
Narrator: Edoardo Ballerini
Genre: Fiction, romance
Subject: Aging and memories
Setting: Hollywood, Amalfi Coast of Italy
Source: Hardcover from publisher for review, audio from library download
Why did I read this book now? Maine Readers Choice Awards Short List


  1. I think if I seek this one out to read, it will owe a lot to the name Hotel Adequate View. That just cracks me up, especially when paired with the Amalfi Coast. It tells me there are wry undertones to the book.

  2. Just started this one and I'm really loving it! I skimmed your review so I didn't spoil anything for myself but what I read is great!

    Dwayne Johnston (Seattle DUI Attorney)


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