Thursday, January 10, 2013

Review of "Beautiful Ruins" [2]

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
Harper, ISBN 978-0061928123
June 12, 2012, 352 pages

How did I miss all the reviews of this one when it came out months ago? But finally it appeared in my radar. Honestly, the cover alone is enough to make me buy it. And I am happy that I did, because it is, in my opinion, a lovely book.

So, what is it about?
The story begins in a tiny little fishing town on the Italian coast, when the young inn keeper..who seems to have very, very few the arrival by boat of a vision, a beautiful young American actress, who wishes to stay at his little hotel. A dying, beautiful young American actress whose stay in this little town will set off a series of events that we will follow in this book, in fits and starts, five decades into the future, to the present day. That is when Pasquale, now an old man, turns up in LA trying to wrap up a few loose ends from those many years ago. It was love at first sight for young Pasquale, a love that has haunted him every day since and he is out to finally solve the mystery of the life of the beautiful Dee Moray.

The chapters set in the 60's have a certain sort of magic, recreating a view of the Golden Age of Hollywood, that Mediterranean sun reflecting on the water, Liz Taylor and Richard Burton...who pays a key role in this story...filming Cleopatra in nearby Roma, all Trevi Fountain and Vespas. OK, yes, maybe also a lot of drinking and a lot of infidelity too.

But then, before you know it, we are dragged into the present day, where a once famous producer named Michael Deane, whose first big break was working on Cleopatra,  can now make more money with a creepy sounding reality show, HookBook,  than by actually making movies. Oh, what a strange man he is...
“The first impression one gets of Michael Deane is of a man constructed of wax, or perhaps prematurely embalmed. It may be impossible to trace the sequence of facials, spa treatments, mud baths, cosmetic procedures, lifts and staples, collagen implants, outpatient touch-ups, tannings, Botox injections, cyst and growth removals and stem-cell injections that have caused a 72-year-old man to have the face of a 9-year-old Filipino girl.”
But he is not the only 'interesting' character. Take, for example, the fledgling screenwriter Shane Wheeler, who arrives to pitch a movie idea based on the Donner party, a pitch we get to read all about in a chapter called “Eating Human Flesh.” Boy, that sounds like a great date movies, or one to take the kids to, doesn't it?
Then there is Deane's assistant Claire Silver who has become so disillusioned with her pointless job and her porn addicted boyfriend that she is considering taking a job running a Scientology museum. They are an interesting bunch and the story that slowly unfolds, both past and present, is fun and funny, interesting and moving and finally, against what seems to be going on, more than a little uplifting. Bottom line, it is just a great story, well told, with a message that will sneak up on you, right up until it hit you in the face.

Now don't let what I am going to tell you scare you off!
Because ultimately Beautiful Ruins is a bit of a morality tale, questioning how we balance what we want to do, with doing what we know is right. As Pasquale's mother once told him, "what we want to do and what we must do are not the same ... Pasquo, the smaller the place between your desire and what is right, the happier you'll be."
And it is a delightful ride finding out if happiness will be the final story for any of these people we have met along the way as the story comes to an end. I won't give away what happens, but I must say I was delighted that Mr. Walter's was able to wrap things up in so many interesting and appealing ways.
I am not one who usually re-reads books. So many books, so little time and all, but this is one that I know that I will be revisiting.
Well done...and highly recommended.


  1. I've heard many good things about this one, and the Italy aspect seems right up your alley!

  2. So many people have raved over this one, I'm a little nervous to give it a go.

  3. ok sold me .. i am adding to the list to be bought

  4. Ridiculous ѕtory there. What occurгed after?
    Take care!

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  5. Crazy good, this book! I am so glad you read it. It is a real bear to describe, and do it justice. It is just different than anything you normally creative and hopeful and clever. If you haven't read "The Financial Lives of the Poets" by this guy, you might put it on your list. It isn't quite as brilliant, but his personality is still there in spades.

  6. This was a 2012 favorite of mine. I loved the setting in Italy, Dick and Liz, the characters, and oh, those stories within the story. The Donner Party was soooo bad it was good!

    1. is.
      I loved Deane..and Italy...and Pasquale and Dee and the porn addicted boyfriend..I loved it all. lol


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