Book Review: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
If not for all the rave reviews out there, I might never have picked up Beautiful Ruins on my own. And that would have been a shame.
Based on the dustjacket flap, this didn’t really sound like a book for me. Hollywood producers. Scandal on the set of Cleopatra in the 1960s. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, for God’s sake. Do I care about any of this?
As it turns out, the answer is yes. Beautiful Ruins is a vast book, in terms of subject matter if not actual page length. (For the record, the book is 337 pages long). What sounded to me like a relatively simple story of worlds colliding is in actuality a tale that spans decades and continents, with a cast of characters so large that it shouldn’t work — but it does.
Beautiful Ruins starts in 1962 in a small Italian fishing village — so small that neighboring villages look down at it, so isolated that arrival by boat is the only access, a place so not of note that no one arrives here by accident, ever. Into this village comes Dee Moray, a young beautiful wannabe starlet, believing herself to be dying and awaiting a final assignation with her lover. Dee is sent to stay at the one hotel in the village, run by Pasquale, son of the recently deceased innkeeper, come home to fulfill his father’s unrealistic dream of turning the family inn into a tourist attraction.
Dee has been sent packing to Porto Vergogna from the set of the Burton/Taylor movie fiasco, Cleopatra. The reasons for her exile unfold throughout the story, and all is not as it seems. Pasquale is smitten and finds a new purpose in championing Dee’s tragic cause.
Meanwhile, in modern-day Hollywood, a young assistant on the verge of walking away from her job with a legendary producer and giving up on the business once and for all is roped back in by the sudden appearance of an old man seeking a woman once encountered, briefly but intensely, fifty years earlier.
Adding to all this, we see bits of screenplays and manuscripts, a stage play and a movie pitch, and meet people across the years, from 1960s to present, with stops in Seattle, Idaho, Edinburgh, Rome, and Florence. Bit players come and go; some have a huge impact on the unfolding drama, some appear only long enough to spin events off into a new direction.
Amazingly, it works. What I’d initially thought would be a story following two main plot threads evolved into a story with seemingly endless characters and lives, all taking different trajectories, separate but connected by coincidences and happenstance. The characters’ intersections are fascinating, and I couldn’t help wondering at the dexterity with which the author keeps all of the plot points moving forward and continuing to matter.
My quibbles, if any, are that there are a few minor characters whom I would have like to learn more about and seen fleshed out to a greater degree, such as the shiftless musician we encounter midway through the book, and others whose role is so minor that fewer pages devoted to them might have been better, such as the self-deluding young screenwriter who ends up functioning as translator throughout the book. Likewise, a subplot concerning the Donner party (of all things!) was a bit overplayed and seemed unnecessary.
Still, Beautiful Ruins was both absorbing and moving, and I found myself completely engrossed in the characters’ lives. Ultimately, for many of the characters, a choice (or several choices) had to be made. Pasquale reflects, late in the book, on a childhood memory concerning a decision he once had to make, and remembers his mother’s advice:
“Sometimes,” she said, “what we want to do and what we must do are not the same.” She put a hand on his shoulder. “Pasqo, the smaller the space between your desire and what is right, the happier you will be.”
For the characters in Beautiful Ruins, navigating this space is what forms the core of the choices they must make, and the decisions they make and the actions they take set the course for their chances of happiness. Seeing these choices play out is what makes this book so fascinating.