Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Book Review: Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter

Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter
Harper, a division of Harper Collins Publishers
337 pages 

OK, so here are just a few of the cast of characters starring in this novel by Jess Walter, which spans from 1962 until "very recently."

Pasquale Tursi, owner of the Hotel Adequate View (how can you not love that name?) in the tiny speck of an Italian coastal fishing village of Porto Vergogna.

Dee Moray, a beautiful American actress with a promising film career ahead of her

Michael Deane, a smarmy, narcissistic, greedy, Botoxed Hollywood movie executive.

Claire Silver, burnt-out assistant to Michael.

Shane Wheeler, an aspiring screenwriter who has written a movie about William Eddy and the ill-fated Donner Party

and Alvis Bender, a World War II veteran and car dealership owner originally from Wisconsin who spends two weeks a year writing the Great American Novel at the Hotel Adequate View.

Oh ... and Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

Yeah, that Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.  Might as well throw in the movie Cleopatra, too, because it's kind of its own character in Beautiful Ruins. 

There are more people in supporting roles, but the point is that they are all connected. Their lives, their stories ... it all works fantastically. But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself in my enthusiasm for this one.

Pasquale Tursi is a bit of a dreamer. He has ambitions. As the owner of a hotel that translates into English as Hotel Adequate View, Pasquale believes that if he could only attract the kind of American royalty like President and Mrs. Kennedy to his remote Italian villa (remember, Beautiful Ruins begins in 1962), then the world would be his.

One day, as Pasquale is building a beach out of rocks and dreaming of tennis courts on the edge of cliffs, an American does arrive in sleepy Porto Vergogna.

Enter Dee Moray, the beautiful actress fresh from the set of "Cleopatra." She's dying - stomach cancer, she's been told - and Pasquale is determined to make things right, to learn the truth, even if it means giving up the one person he loves.
"Pasquale stared at the door. He had wished for this world of the glamorous Americans, and like a dream, she had come to his hotel, but now the world was back where it belonged, and he wondered if it would have been better to never have glimpsed what lay behind the door." (pg. 188)
Such begins Beautiful Ruins's ongoing theme of "we want what we want - we love who we love" (pg. 298) that is carried flawlessly throughout the novel , along with an acquiescence to that fact that this isn't a simple sentiment.

This is one of those rare books that you love all the way through - even until the end - and you're holding your breath while frantically turning the pages of that ending hoping to God that the writer doesn't do something godawfulstupid and screw up the preceding 300-some odd pages for you. (The ending had a "Six Feet Under" feel to it for me, which was just fine with me since I loved that show.) With the exception of one thing, it all comes together in the end, even though you, as the reader are wondering "how?" and saying "there's no way he and she can ..." or "the odds of this are absolutely impossible," and it is simply captivating.

(OK, I'll admit, even though I understand it in the context and theme of the novel, I was not pleased at the resolution with the square of Claire/Daryl/Shane/Sandra) at all, particularly the first three individuals. So, there.)

There are multiple layers here, stories within stories. Not only does this span decades - 1962 to the present day - but we as the reader travel throughout Italy (Porto Vergogna, Florence, Rome) and England, and to Hollywood and to Idaho and Seattle. Add in the dynamics of a real-life couple as volatile and complicated as Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and it is a rare writer indeed who can pull this off. In the hands of a much lesser talented novelist, this would be a disaster on the scale of "Cleopatra" itself. Fortunately, this is a Jess Walter Production, and he brings everything he has (and then some, and then some more) to this story, just as he did with The Financial Lives of the Poets, which I loved.

Beautiful Ruins is spectacular, a masterpiece, an Oscar contender. It will be among my top books for 2012. If you love the movies, if you love a good love story, if you don't mind a little romantic cry along with a laugh or two, if the thought of Italy makes you swoon, then Beautiful Ruins is for you too.

5 stars out of 5.

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Sue Jackson said...

Wow, this sounds great! Yours is the second good review of this novel I've read recently - I will have to add it to my TBR list (the never-ending list!)

Thanks for the review -


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Peppermint Ph.D. said...

How the heck could anyone NOT read this book after that spectacular review!! Whew! A must have indeed! :)

Sara said...

I became a Jess Walter fan after reading The Zero. My fanaticism got a bit more after he did an amazing interview with me for my review of Financial Lives. You should check it out because it might somehow even make you love him more.