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Beautiful Ruins: A Novel Hardcover – June 12, 2012
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Adriana Trigiani Reviews Beautiful Ruins
Beautiful Ruinsis a glorious read for book lovers. From the moment you pick up the novel, it conjures a world that you long to enter. The teal-blue Ligurian Sea laps against a jagged coastline filled with candy-colored houses and open windows. At first glance, you’re dying to get inside those houses and find out what’s going on.
You needn’t worry. Jess Walter has written a sumptuous epic about the real people who make art, spinning illusion for fun, profit, and meaning. There are screen actors, a novelist, and Pasquale, an innkeeper, who keeps his patrons fed and watered on homemade wine and dreams. Among all the shimmer and hope are the lost souls who long to create something, anything. And just as Jess Walter introduces us to these characters, he follows them for fifty years. The journey will delight and captivate you.
You will be crushed when the novelist, Alvis, tracks down a woman whom he believed saved him in his youth, only to take a long walk down a dark hallway into a room where everything he believes and all his hopes shatter in one exchange. Jess Walter can break your heart in one conversation.
If you love the ancient charms of the Italian coast on the Ligurian Sea, if you long for Edinburgh and its cold rain and distant hot sun, and if you love stories of the dream factory that is Hollywood, you will not be able to part from this book until you are finished reading it. Even then, for months afterward, you’ll keep it close so you can reread a passage here and there that moved you.
It’s all here, the illusion and reality, the joy and the shame of the creative life, of life itself. The ingenue Dee, the producer Michael, and the D-girl Claire take you into the world of making movies, the expectations and disappointments, and in an ingenious turn, the author pins the hem of the action with real Hollywood stars, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, who are engaging in a drama of their own in Rome.
Jess Walter has quietly and expertly built a career over six novels that puts him at the forefront of great American writers. Beautiful Ruins is the emerald among the pearls.
“A monument to crazy love . . . Walter [is] a believer in capricious destiny with a fine, freewheeling sense of humor.” (New York Times)
“Walter is a very, very funny writer and can do Hollywood satire with the best of them. But this is also a novel with a live, beating heart, full of sympathy for its characters and a gut wisdom…You’ll want to explore these Ruins.” (Newsday)
“Walter vividly draws a world both tender and cutthroat, where ambition battles reality, daydreams fight doldrums and sometimes win.” (Interview)
“A marvel, an absolute gem of a beach read that is both hilarious and heartbreaking.” (Huffington Post)
“Expertly scratches the seasonal itch for both literary depth and dazzle.” (Entertainment Weekly)
“Entrancing…Walter’s turns of phrase are as brilliant as his plot twists, making for a compelling, fun read.” (People)
“Lyrical, heartbreaking, and funny . . . Walter closes the deal with such command that you begin to wonder why up till now he’s not often been mentioned as one of the best novelists around. Beautiful Ruins might just correct that oversight.” (Kansas City Star)
“Beautiful . . . A shining, imaginative tale . . . Beautiful Ruins shows novelists how it is done.” (The Plain Dealer)
“His [Walter’s] characters are long-suffering, prone to failure and sometimes at death’s door. But the verve and enthusiasm of this novel, from its let’s-go-everywhere structure to the comedy in the marrow of its sentences, are wholly life-affirming.” (Minneapolis Star Tribune)
“A beautiful narrative . . . This writer is a genius of the modern American moment.” (Philadelphia Inquirer)
“A novel shot in sparkly Technicolor. . . . reimagines history in a package so appealing we’d be idiots not to buy it.” (Library Journal (starred review))
“Well-constructed…quirky and entertaining tale of greed, treachery, and love.” (Publishers Weekly)
“This is a blockbuster, with romance, majesty, comedy, smarts, and a cast of thousands. There’s lights, there’s camera, there’s action. If you want anything more from a novel than Jess Walter gives you in Beautiful Ruins, you’re getting thrown out of the theater.” (Daniel Handler, author of Why We Broke Up and creator of Lemony Snicket)
“[N]othing less than brilliant, a tour de force that crosses decades, continents, and genres, to powerful and often hilarious effect....A masterful novel of love, loss, and hard-won hope that satisfies on every level.” (Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk)
“Within a page-turner of a plot, these triumphantly vulnerable characters leap off the page to take up permanent residence in your inner life. The effect is so powerful that to be untouched by Beautiful Ruins might well be like having no inner life at all.” (Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction)
“A brilliant, madcap meditation on fate. . . . Walter’s prose is a joy-funny, brash, witty and rich with ironic twists. He’s taken all of the tricks of the postmodern novel and scoured out the cynicism, making for a novel that’s life-affirming but never saccharine.” (Kirkus Reviews (starred review))
“A novel with pathos, piercing wit and, most important, the generous soul of a literary classic. . . . Walter has planted himself firmly in the first rank of American authors.” (Boston Globe)
“A literary miracle.” (Maureen Corrigan, NPR's Fresh Air)
“Beautiful Ruins is satisfying and delicate, a spectacular story of love, frustration, selfish intent, and the patience of the human heart.” (The Stranger)
“[A] high-wire feat of bravura storytelling. . . . [Walter’s] mixture of pathos and comedy stirs the heart and amuses as it also rescues us from the all too human pain that is the motor of this complex and ever-evolving novel.” (New York Times Book Review)
“His masterpiece . . . an interlocking, continent-hopping, decade-spanning novel with heart and pathos to burn, all big dreams, lost loves, deep longings and damn near perfect.” (Salon)
“It is a powerful and lush book.” (Selma Blair, the New York Post)
“A great getaway of a novel.” (People)
“Beautiful Runs is itself a showcase for Walter’s outrageous literary gifts in virtually every genre and style. . .No wonder critics have been outdoing each other with superlatives. . .” (Nashville Scene)
“[An] enchanting novel. . . Sweeping effortlessly back and forth between Italy and current-day Hollywood, and between various modes of storytelling, Walters builds a world that won’t soon let you go.” (Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife)
“Combines satisfying, old-fashioned storytelling with a modern sensibility.” (Becky Aikman)
Top customer reviews
It is a miracle when the boat approaches. An American tourist! Not only an American, but an American movie actresss! Dee Moray is in Italy as a cast member in the blockbuster Cleopatra, a movie that is making headlines even before it is finished as the press can't get enough of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton and their on-again, off-again love affair that is just starting. Dee has been sent here by one of the movie administrators. She is very ill and is waiting there for her lover to come and help her through the illness.
Thus starts a novel that is a delight to read. It moves across time from 1962 to the present, across continents from Italy to America to London. Along the way are famous actors, Italian dreamers, and the men and women who come to Hollywood to try to make dreams come true. It is about love and dreams and how we sometimes settle or find the fulfillment of our dreams in unexpected ways. Above all, we are entranced with the characters we meet and the adventures they take us on. This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.
So three stars, because I can't decide.
In some respects, it would have made perfect sense. It had a beautiful American actress, a future producer, begins while the movie Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, is being filmed in Italy. Then, it makes a 50-year jump to a journey toward an unexpected reunion. It’s a good thing Burton isn’t still around, because he might have had a case for slander. You can imagine the scenes on the silver screen. For now, it is just a book.
Cue some Italian music. It is 1962. As 21-year old Pasquale Tursi works on the beach of his remote Italian island Porto Vergogna, the hiccup between more glamorous coastal villages. He has inherited the inn his father ran, which has very few customers, but he dreams that a tennis court built into the cliffs will be the attraction it needs. His mother is still in mourning, his aunt cooks the meals. The little boat pulls up to the dock and the American beauty, Dee Moore, disembarks. It was hard not to be smitten at first sight. Dee, the same age as Pasquale, is going to stay at his hotel. Is there some mistake? She is Taylor’s understudy in Cleopatra, but has been diagnosed with stomach cancer and she is here to rest before going to Switzerland for treatment, arranged in part by a 22-year old Michael Deane. When she grows ill, a doctor is called, who informs that she doesn’t have cancer, she is pregnant. We can guess why she is here and what awaits in Switzerland.
Through the short time Dee is at the inn, she and Pasquale become friends, walking among the ruins, some from World War II, on the island. His only other regular customer is the annual visit by Alvis Bender, a former American GI, who continues his attempt to write about his World War II experiences in Italy, but can’t seem to get past the first chapter that includes a brief encounter with an Italian woman before he came home. He tries to find her.
Fast forward 50 years. Michael Deane is the authority on the best way to pitch movies. He’s been married multiple times. His assistant, Claire Silver, thought evaluating scripts would be more glamorous, but is inundated with lousy stories and pitches. Shane Wheeler has an idea to pitch. An elderly Italian man, who speaks little English, shows up at the Hollywood studio grasping a frayed 50-year old Michael Deane business card, seeing if he could find Dee Moore. We have the confluence of these people. Wheeler can speak Italian, so now is the translator for Pasquale; Silver tracks down Dee and the crew sets out on the journey.
Author Jess Walter, though, intersperses what has happened to all the characters during this time and the lives of the new ones. Most key is that Dee never went to Switzerland. She returned to the States, gave birth to a boy she named Pasquale, Pat for short. She never became a famous actress, but started community theater. We are introduced to Pat’s troubled life and his attempts to overcome it. We are introduced to Wheeler’s and Silver’s lives, aspirations and doubts.
Dreams, reinventing one self and discovering what the meanings of love, relationship, and friendship are the threads and themes in Beautiful Ruins. Almost all search for what once was and what now might be.
From a writer’s perspective, it was also wonderful reading Walter’s notes on writing the book and developing the title, with which I could identify. Though the stories are different, the notion of friends in different countries reuniting after gaps of time resonated with my own experiences in Norway.