“Beautiful Ruins” by Jess Walter is a story set in simple times and may be that is why I was so taken in by it. I had not read the earlier successful book by Jess Walter, “The Financial Lives of the Poets”. I have heard a lot about it and will read it now after having experienced his style of writing. Beautiful Ruins is set in most places – coast of Italy, Rome, Hollywood, Idaho, and in England and Scotland, and that’s why I loved this book so much. The fact that Walter can take the reader to so many places is stupendous and shows his skill as a writer.
The “beautiful ruins” of this novel is its physical setting; a tiny coastal village in Italy called Porto Vergogna (ironically translated as Port Shame). Here we are introduced to a young man named Pasquel, whose family owns the only hotel in town. He is determined to attract more tourists to this village and thereby improve the conditions of his hotel which he names The Hotel Adequate View. The book starts in 1962 when a young beautiful actress named Dee Moray arrives to stay at the hotel (earlier only one American had visited the hotel – Alvis Bender, a writer who only could not seem to write) and but obviously everything changes and the change occurs when Pasquel falls in love with Dee. The starlet one fine day leaves the island and Pasquel is left heartbroken but not without a mission. That is one part of the story.
The second part of the story is the “recent present” where Pasquel arrives in Hollywood to find out what happened to Dee. The quest to find her leads him to other people who were affected by the single act of her coming to the island in 1962. This is where we meet other characters: Michael Deane, the aging producer, Claire, Deane’s assistant whose idealism is slipping by slowly, and Shane, the talent-challenged writer, who help Pasquel in his search. The surprise element in the book is Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. (Almost like a starred appearance)
The book alternates between 1962 and the present beautifully in the form of letters, character sketches, lives lived, old letters, novel excerpts and movie pitches. There is a lot going on in the book and the reader has to get used to that (which can be very difficult) before falling in love with the writing. Beautiful Ruins as a title is most symbolic of what was once beautiful is in ruins and all things beautiful eventually turn to ruins. The slippage in time is symbolic of this fact.
“Beautiful Ruins” is a beautifully composed, philosophically written and highly entertaining novel. It can get a bit dragging at times but at the end of it all, it is so worth-it, once the reader knows the pace is picking up and going somewhere. There are private losses and gains in the book. Each character is beautifully etched and his or her own story to tell and how he or she is connected to the others. The characters of the past and present merge wonderfully to show readers Walter’s writing prowess. Like I said I only am inclined to read good books and I am glad I read this one. Highly recommended.