Review: Beautiful Ruins

ImageTitle: Beautiful Ruins

Author: Jess Walter

Rating: ★★★1/2

Provided Synopsis: The story begins in 1962. On a rocky patch of the sun-drenched Italian coastline, a young innkeeper, chest-deep in daydreams, looks on over the incandescent waters of the Ligurian Sea and spies an apparition: a tall, thin woman, a vision in white, approaching him on a boat. She is an actress, he soon learns, an American starlet, and she is dying.

And the story begins again today, half a world away, when an elderly Italian man shows up on a movie studio’s back lot-searching for the mysterious woman he last saw at his hotel decades earlier.

What unfolds is a dazzling, yet deeply human, roller coaster of a novel, spanning fifty years and nearly as many lives. From the lavish set of Cleopatra to the shabby revelry of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Walter introduces us to the tangled lives of a dozen unforgettable characters: the starstruck Italian innkeeper and his long-lost love; the heroically preserved producer who once brought them together and his idealistic young assistant; the army veteran turned fledgling novelist and the rakish Richard Burton himself, whose appetites set the whole story in motion-along with the husbands and wives, lovers and dreamers, superstars and losers, who populate their world in the decades that follow. 

Review: Spanning over the course of fifty years, Beautiful Ruins is a story that tells the spiraling and tangled aftermath of the fateful meeting between Dee and Pasquale. Though they only know each other for a matter of days, their lives are touched by one another, and are made more complicated by the people and circumstances that lead to their “moment that lasts forever.” For Dee, an actress from the set of Cleopatra, is dying, and Pasquale is drawn to her, as she as to him. They stumble over language barriers, only to discover that their connection is what they learn from the circumstances and sacrifices of the others life. Their moments are not able to be stretched long enough and they are separated.

It is from this point on that the story begins to decline from such promise as the author begins to bombarde the reader with multiple characters. Yes, each of them has a part to play in the aftermath of Dee and Pasquale’s meeting in a small Italian town on the coast, but at the same time they are so secondary to what I wanted to be the heart of the story. They seemed to be used as the author’s method to dig into deeper themes of people who are so ruined by their own self-absorption and self-interest. The glimpses into the cut-throat world of Hollywood and desire for fame were nowhere near as poignant or as beautiful as the time Dee and Pasquale spent together, nor as astounding as the character of Pasquale himself, whom I wish we would have been given more time with. Too many characters tangled together to achieve a theme that was already there through the simplicity of two characters bogged this story down.

Jess Walter is a magnificent writer, however, and I do look forward to reading more of his work one day.


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