Rarely do I read a fiction book that feels like a true work of passion on the part of the author, but the best-seller “Beautiful Ruins“ (Harper, 2012) by Jess Walter is just such a work.
“Beautiful Ruins” is a crazy-quilt kind of novel – virtually every chapter skips to a different period in time and a different location with many new characters. Readers travel from Italy in the 1960s to Hollywood in the present, with multiple stops in between in Seattle and Sandpoint, Idaho.
At its heart, “Beautiful Ruins” is a love story. There is the “love at first sight” variety explored at the beginning of the book, when hero Pasquale Tursi first sees heroine Dee Moray: “Tursi watched the arrival of the woman as if in a dream. … She smiled, and in that instant, if such a thing were possible, Pasquale fell in love, and he would remain in love for the rest of his life.”
Other forms of love are shown, too, such as the love of Pasquale’s aunt for his mother, and Dee’s love for her challenging son, Pat. Other themes include the absurdity of the Hollywood obsession with youth and money and, my favorite, the role that casual encounters can play in making a profound difference in one’s life.
“Beautiful Ruins” is a complex novel that is difficult to summarize, and it would spoil many surprises for a reader to do so. But I can share that the book follows three major tracks: the story of Pasquale’s life and the relationship that develops between him and the beautiful young actress, Dee; the story of Claire, a plucky young film assistant who acts as the right-hand woman to Michael Deane, a first-class jerk of a Hollywood producer; and the story of Dee, who moves back to America to forge a normal life outside of movies. Suffice to say that the various threads are woven together and concluded happily by the end of the book.
Walter’s well-drawn characters amaze, surprise and generate loud laughs. Walter is a very good, versatile writer who throws in some lovely descriptions of the Italian countryside, some partial novels supposedly written by some of his characters and even some poetry. My favorite passages are his humorous sketches: “Upon meeting Michael for the first time, many people stare open-mouthed, unable to look away from his glistening, vaguely lifelike face. … Trying to picture what Michael Deane looked like as a young man in Italy fifty years ago based on his appearance now is like standing on Wall Street trying to understand the topography of Manhattan Island before the Dutch arrived.”
The only false note in the book involves the character of the evil Hollywood producer – a selfish, scheming, Machiavellian individual. I’ve already seen my share of greedy Hollywood producers, thank you very much, though I understand the need for at least one bad guy in the story. I expected that the Richard Burton cameo would be rather stereotypical as well, but it is quite charming and amusing and leads to a life-changing epiphany for Pasquale.
“Beautiful Ruins” is a most entertaining novel, and I believe the author when he claims that it took him 15 years to write. All types of book clubs should enjoy the story, particularly those that tackle engrossing fiction stories like “The Night Circus” (Random House, 2011) by Erin Morgenstern and “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” (Scholastic Press, 2007) by Brian Selznick.
Leslie Ashmore is a longtime Mountain View resident who belongs to two book clubs.