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Book Review: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter (4/5)

9 Dec

This book was a big hit a few years ago when it first made the rounds with book clubs. My group is often a bit behind and this was no exception. The beautiful cover has stuck in my mind so I was excited to finally pick it up.

Cover image via Goodreads

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

Summary from Goodreads:

The story begins in 1962. On a rocky patch of the sun-drenched Italian coastline, a young innkeeper, chest-deep in daydreams, looks out 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.

You really had to pay attention to this book to keep it straight in your head. I think the audiobook was a bit of a hindrance in that respect. The time jumps were a little confusing and the number of characters was a bit higher than I was really comfortable with. Altogether, it was a fun read. I loved the setting in Italy and Claire was a fun modern character to connect with. The variety of people and times and plots kept me interested and guessing where we’d go to next and what would happen. I thought it all came together a bit too nicely in the end, but it was also good to have all the loose ends tied up.

The characters were very distinct. I’m not sure if I would call them credible, but each was memorable for one or two characteristics that helped me keep them straight in my head. Some were more believable than others. I didn’t buy that Claire’s boyfriend could turn around and be marriage material (my apologies for forgetting his name, it’s been a while). I thought Shane was a bit too much at times and his plotline tied up a bit too well for me. I’d say they all had a little bit of a caricature in them which made them a bit hard to believe but overall, they created a wonderful cast of characters.

Dee was my favorite character. We see her in many different stages of her life and she really binds the story together more than anyone else. We see her as a young woman, recently pregnant. We see her as the mother of a teenager, and we see her near the end of life, as an older woman. She’s graceful through it all, but we see her anger and resentment a bit as well. Her feelings for Richard Burton are very complex and I liked how that progressed through the story. She felt the most fleshed-out of all the characters and, to me, the most real.

I related to Pasquale’s ambition. He wanted to make something out of nothing and was very determined to do it. I think anyone who writes feels the same way. You want to create something meaningful, lasting, and beautiful, where there was nothing before. I could understand that energy and that enthusiasm. When he was put out about his tennis court, it was heartbreaking to hear because I sympathized with the pain.

Jess Walter
Image from the author’s website

My favorite plotline was the one with Dee and Pasquale in Italy when Dee is pregnant. I thought their relationship was really beautiful and I liked that instead of pushing the two together, it pushed Pasquale back to his ex. It felt very real to me that a woman like Dee and Pasquale’s attraction to her would stir memories of someone else he cared for. It was a good development for Pasquale’s character.

The ending of the book upset me. It seemed too convenient. Everyone’s story wrapped up neatly and so perfectly in the last chapter that I felt a bit slighted. Like when a parent ends a bedtime story quickly to go catch the news. It was too perfect. I can’t describe it well, but it felt ‘off.’

The audiobook was narrated by Edoardo Ballerini and he did an amazing job. His Italian seemed spot on to me, though I only took a year of Italian. He gave Dee a very whimsical voice which I think fits her character perfectly. He didn’t give women ‘silly’ voices or make them seem overly effeminate. I have no complaints.

Almost every character in this book had some idea of how their life would play out that they had to face. Dee thought she’d be an actress, Pasquale a hotelier, Pat a musician. And it didn’t work out for any of them. They had to realize what they really wanted in life and chase that instead. Dee wanted to be happy, Pasquale wanted a family, and Pat just wanted Lydia. Realizing what you really want is hard. I think I’m facing it in my career right now and it’s so difficult to struggle through. It was good to see characters struggling with this during all stages of their lives.

Writer’s Takeaway: The jumping timeline can be difficult to master and Walter did it well here. He had touchpoints at each stage of life that helped the reader know what time period we were in. The different locations were a huge help for this. Italy meant early in the timeline, Idaho and Hollywood were late. I liked knowing where in the story I was and it helped fit the whole thing together in my mind.

Overall, an enjoyable novel even though the ending was a bit off-putting. Four out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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