Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

When one of my best friends heard I was traveling to Italy - more specifically, to the Cinque Terre, she enthusiastically recommended Beautiful Ruins, a book that takes place in a sixth, more isolated, village Walters imagines for his story.

Beautiful Ruins opens with a beautiful film actress arriving in Porto Vergogna, Italy in 1962.  She was in the film production of Cleopatra but now she's sick and being sent away to await her lover in this obscure coastal village.  There, blue-eyed Pasquale Tursi is carrying on his father's legacy, imagining his forgotten village and his dead father's hotel will someday attain the tourism fame of the Cinque Terre. 

As Dee Moray settles in at Pasquale's hotel, the oddly named Hotel  Adequate View (yes, there's a story there), I was convinced I would love this book.  Walters paints a beautiful picture of a quiet village still dominated by fishermen and memories of the war.  Pasquale's earnest attempts to cater to his beautiful American visitor and the tenuous friendship the two form are enchanting.  The village and the story has a nice bit of quirk that complements the sweetness of Dee and Pasquale's fumbling relationship, such as it is.

Then along comes Richard Burton and the fictional Michael Deane, erstwhile film producer and all-around self-involved douchebag, accompanied by a jump in time to modern day California and the whole thing came off the rails for me.  Walters departs from his promising beginning to introduce us to Deane and a pack of less than lovable losers including Deane's development assistant, Claire, who came to work looking for the next big film and ended up working on some garbage reality show called Hookbook.  There's Shane, who has a tattoo of a made-up Bible passage that he spent his whole life living by until it failed him catastrophically, until he heads to Hollywood to pitch his terrible movie idea to Michael Deane.  Finally there's Pat Bender, washed-up frontman of a band everybody forgot, a screw-up who lost the good things in his life to drugs and bad decisions.
This is all to say that I loved the flashbacks to 1962 Italy and ensuing hijinks, but grinding through the present day with Walter's over-quirked, generally unpleasant West Coast set who are alternately trying to get ahead and right past wrongs left me cold.  All that said, Walter does manage to bring things full circle in a way that tugged gently at the heartstrings as one character starts to redeem himself and in so doing sets a lot of wrongs right. 

Walter is undoubtedly an excellent writer.  Beautiful Ruins is packed with perfect description that captures Italy's incredible coast and quaint villages.  The dialogue is fast-moving and realistic.  Even the structure of the story itself is admirable, peeling itself off in layers to reveal what Dee and Pasquale and Richard Burton, and even the unlikeable Michael Deane started in 1962.  Walter's biggest problem is his characters.  At times their exaggerated qualities chip away at their humanity and leave caricatures in their places, which makes Beautiful Ruins a little hollow on the inside.

"...but true quests aren't measured in time or distance anyway, so much as in hope.  There are only two good outcomes for a quest like this, the hope of the serendipitous savant - sail for Asia and stumble on America - and the hope of scarecrows and tin men: that you find out you had the thing you sought all along."


  1. I just finished this book last night!
    My overall impression is that I liked it and thought it was well done. I also liked how it all got tied up at the end. However, it did take me over 2 weeks to read it which is a sign I didn't get absorbed in it at any time to read a big chunk. I picked away at it, but always seemed to like the parts I was reading.
    Anyway, great review! When I saw this in my feed reader this morning I wondered if I had written a review without realizing it!

  2. Hm, it seems like you liked this book but didn't love it. I'm on the fence about it now.

  3. Sounds like a there aren't too many great characters to love in this one. I have to like at least one character to truly enjoy a book.

  4. I was in the minority when I tried this one (audio) I just didn't love it.