Published by Harper on June 12, 2012
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The story begins in 1962. On a rocky patch of the sun-drenched Italian coastline, a young innkeeper, chest-deep in daydreams, looks out over the incandescent waters of the Ligurian Sea and spies an apparition: a tall, thin woman, a vision in white, approaching him on a boat. She is an actress, he soon learns, an American starlet, and she is dying.\r\n\r\nAnd the story begins again today, half a world away, when an elderly Italian man shows up on a movie studio's back lot—searching for the mysterious woman he last saw at his hotel decades earlier.\r\n\r\nWhat unfolds is a dazzling, yet deeply human, roller coaster of a novel, spanning fifty years and nearly as many lives. From the lavish set ofCleopatra to the shabby revelry of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Walter introduces us to the tangled lives of a dozen unforgettable characters: the starstruck Italian innkeeper and his long-lost love; the heroically preserved producer who once brought them together and his idealistic young assistant; the army veteran turned fledgling novelist and the rakish Richard Burton himself, whose appetites set the whole story in motion—along with the husbands and wives, lovers and dreamers, superstars and losers, who populate their world in the decades that follow.\r\n\r\nGloriously inventive, constantly surprising, Beautiful Ruins is a story of flawed yet fascinating people, navigating the rocky shores of their lives while clinging to their improbable dreams.
This book had caught my eye a few times before (the cover is beautiful!), but I couldn’t decide if I really wanted to read it. Then my book club chose it as our January selection, and the decision was made. Once I started reading it, I was really glad that I did.
“Sometimes what we want to do and what we must do are not the same. Pasquo, the smaller the space between your desire and what is right, the happier you will be.” ― Jess Walter
I liked the non-linear way that the book was written, ranging from 1962 Italy, present day Hollywood, 2008 London, and 1978 Seattle. It wove together the stories of several people, taking us into their pasts and then back into the present. There were times when it was infused with humor, and times when it was depressingly sad (after all, Beautiful Ruins does not just refer to the hotel that young Pasquale finds himself in charge of). I liked the small moments of revelation – when Pasquale realizes his own failure and owns it, when Claire knows that today is the today she has to make some life-changing decisions. My heart hurt for Dee, the beautiful American actress. It seemed like her life was always tumultuous – she was manipulated, dealt with loss and addiction in her loved ones, and yet she still seemed to have an inner peace and hold it together, never becoming bitter. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter made me long for summer…I wanted to be reading this book outside by the pool, with a drink in my hand. It made me think of blue skies and breezy days, even though I was reading it in the dead of winter. It shows the best and worst of humanity, and sure, some of the characters were probably fairly extreme clichés, but they felt right in this story. I liked the final intersection of the characters, and I was satisfied with the ending. I liked that we found out what happened to everyone, even very minor characters. This was a solidly enjoyable read, and I’m looking forward to a good discussion at book club later this month.