My Review | Beautiful Ruins

Beautiful RuinsBeautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this book, its characters, locations, themes and humor.

“It opens like a movie; you can almost hear the swelling soundtrack, promising a good old-­fashioned, escapist story, even as it is imbued with a knowing — and often hilarious — satirical edge.” – The New York Times

A lot of reviewers focus on the social satire of Hollywood, but I focus on Pasquale, a man who is trying to turn his seaside, nearly deserted, Italian village into a resort. He has dreams of building a tennis court into the cliffs above his place, Hotel Adequate View. One day a beautiful, young American actress arrives. She smiles at him and he falls in love, and “would remain in love for the rest of his life — not so much with the woman, whom he didn’t even know, but with the moment.”

The story unfolds with a load of interesting, funny, flawed characters. The actress is Dee Moray, who has left the set of Cleopatra. She’s sick and Pasquale takes care of her, shows her his village. The unfolding continues, zooming into modern Hollywood and a formerly successful, but now over-the-hill producer and his assistant and an aspiring screenwriter. Turns out that the over-the-hill producer was the publicist on Cleopatra and he sent Dee off the set to see a doctor.

I’m not going to sit here and rewrite the whole story, but just like Back to the Future Pasquale from 1962 shows up in modern times to find Michael Deane, the producer/publicist. I should say that Pasquale is 40 years older … there is no time traveling.

And Richard Burton makes a hilarious guest appearance. And not everything is as it appears.

The plot and story structure is very inventive.

The New York Times describes the author, Jess Walter, “a ridiculously talented writer” and NPR called the book, “a literary miracle” and Esquire named it “The Book of the Year.” Walter spent 15 years on the book. He was a journalist and did a lot of research on each section of the book that brought special, truthful details. He started with Italy and 1962 and learned that the notorious film, Cleopatra, ‘the most expensive film ever made,’ was shot, in part, in Rome.

The inventiveness, somewhat akin to Cloud Atlas, for me comes as the book shifts narrative tone and structure. You get a chapter from Michael Deane’s memoir, a screenwriter’s movie treatment “Eating Human Flesh,” the story of the Donner Party; song lyrics from Dee Moray’s son and more.

One guest of the hotel is a war veteran who visits every year to write his novel. Except once he finished the opening chapter, he never added anything. He never wrote more. He just drank and chased women. Chapter four of Beautiful Ruins is Alvis Bender’s unfinished novel.

The book is funny and touching; it’s about fate and dead-ends; being yourself and being let down and finding your way. I couldn’t wait to get back to it. I will be reading his other books.

“If writing has taught me anything, it’s taught me … everything,” said Walter. “It started out as the thing I wanted to do. It’s been the way I look at the world, the way I process grief, the way I celebrate, the way I marvel at beauty. I can’t think of a thing that I haven’t learned from writing.”

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