Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walters
Published by Harper ISBN 978-0-06-192812-3
Source: Amazon Vine program
Two years ago I read and loved Jess Walter's The Financial Lives of Poets, about a married man who leaves his job as financial writer to start a website just as the economic crisis hits. He doesn't know how he can support his family, keep his children in Catholic school, and take care of his father who has dementia and has moved in with them.
I was so excited to see that he had a new book out, Beautiful Ruins, which is as beautiful on the inside as the cover art is on the outside. This time, Walters takes us from 1962 in a small town on the coast of Italy, where a young Pasquale has lost his father and now runs the small family hotel that has few guests.
A beautiful, fragile American actress, Dee Moray ends up at his hotel and Pasquale feels protective of her and her situation. She confides in him that she is very sick, and Pasquale goes to Rome to confront the production assistant of the movie she is working on, which is the infamous Cleopatra, starring Richard Burton and Liz Taylor.
Richard Burton has always been a larger-than-life figure, and Walters conjures him in all his glory. Pasquale's adventure and relationship with the drunken, egomanical Burton is fascinating.
Fast forward to today, and the production assistant, Michael Deane, is now a has-been movie producer who has a successful reality television show. His assistant, Claire, is at a crossroads professionally and personally, and ready to leave her job unless she finds a movie worthy of her efforts.
Walters toggles back and forth between time frames and his stories and manages to keep both story lines interesting to the reader as we wait to see how these characters will ultimately intersect. When he finally brings both story lines together, it is brilliantly done.
Every character, and there are many, are fully fleshed out and distinct, and unlike some novels, the reader is able to keep them all straight in her mind. I find that to be the work of an accomplished writer.
Interspersed in the book are a chapter of a book written by an American writer who stayed every year at Pasquale's hotel, a synopsis of a movie written by a young man about a survivor of the infamous Donner party, and a chapter from Michael Dean's memoir. All were fascinating.
I was in awe of how Walters brought everything together in the end. The last chapter, titled Beautiful Ruins, brings the reader up-to-date on the characters in the novel, such a satisfying conclusion. Deane says that "This is a love story, but really what isn't?"
Beautiful Ruins may just be as close to perfection as I have ever read. It's like a beautiful package that you keep unwrapping, only to find more pretty wrapping, until you get to the last box and realize that the perfect gift is inside. The writing, the characters, the way it is crafted- it's the total package. This is a book I can imagine many writers will read and be envious that they didn't write it.
rating 5 of 5