Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

Well this book was less of a tome than my previous two, so I was able to finish it more quickly than my last read. It was also a bit breezier in content and tone. Don’t get me wrong: my snooty ex-academic cred is still maintained insofar as the book was tagged as a “must read of the week” by good old NPR.

This is yet another one of my impulse discount e-book purchases, but this one from long enough ago that I actually have it as a iBook rather than a Kindle file.(1) It’s a cinematic novel about cinema and Hollywood, but its opening—and most thematically important—setting of a fictional Cinque Terre village in Italy allows me to check off the latter criterion for this challenge category.

So the novel opens in 1962, when a background actress from the (in)famous Liz Taylor/Richard Burton epic Cleopatra arrives at the picturesque village of Porto Vergogna and the picarequely-named Hotel Adequate View. Dee Moray is blond, charismatic, a rising star in the final heyday of big Hollywood. She has also been told she is terminally ill, so she has come to this quiet place for refuge and a rendezvous with her beloved.

Walter’s well-plotted novel takes of from there, jumping through decades, continents and different POV characters to tell an intricately-woven story of memory, desire, morality and, yes, Hollywood entertainment, booth then and now.

Hotel owner Pasquale falls in love with Dee, a love which inspires him to travel to LA more than 50 years later in hopes of finding her. Here, his paths cross with production assistant Claire, who dreams of the chance to produce actual decent-quality films while grinding away in the reality TV salt mines. A panoply of other character weave their way through the decades: a plastic-surgery obsessed producer; a washed-up indie musician chasing the highs of his next drug hit or his next brush with fame with equal addictiveness; a car salesman who cherishes dreams of becoming a novelist (and whose appalling first chapter we get to read); a young screenwriter pitching Donner!, his examination of the doomed, cannibalistic Donner party; and a truly memorable cameo by Richard Burton.(2)

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Between all these different quirky characters and the frequent time and setting shifts, Walter’s novel clips along at an engaging pace, with each temporal twist or POV turn helping fill in the puzzle pieces of how these disparate folks are—or are not—interconnected. Despite the masterful nature of the plotting, I was less impressed by some of the characterizations. Bits of the dialogue are way more heavy-handed than they need to be, and it doesn’t help that Pasquale, our heartfelt aging Romeo, is hampered by trying to communicate in broken English.

It was still a ripping fun yarn, but it definitely feels more of a popcorn book to me than anything else.

Though, after reading two Man Booker prize-winners in a row, a little popcorn palate cleanser hit the spot.

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(1) There was a brief, foolish stretch after I purchased my iPad, that I eschewed Kindle files to purchase iBooks. Then I realized that with the magic of apps, I could keep buying Kindle files and read them on all my devices–Kindles, iPads, iPhones. But this title was purchased before I came to that momentous, mundane realization.

(2) Or, at least, Burton’s fictionalized facsimile.

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Image credit: Photo taken by the author, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.

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