BEAUTIFUL RUINS by Jess Walter

Book Quote:

After she disappeared inside the hotel, Pasquale entertained the unwieldy thought that he’d somehow summoned her, that after years of living in this place, after months of grief and loneliness and waiting for Americans, he’d created this woman from old bits of cinema and books, from the lost artifacts and ruins of his dreams, from his epic, enduring solitude.

Book Review:

Review by Betsey Van Horn  (MAR 16, 2014)

After looking up various images of the 1963 movie Cleopatra, the film that critically bombed but was lit up by the scandal of Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, I saw a coastline of Italy that looked exactly like the cover of this book. It is a most felicitous cover that captures the mood and time that this novel begins, in 1962. A parochial innkeeper, Pasquali Tursi, lives in a rocky coastline village called Porto Vergogna (Port of Shame), a place the size of a thumb between two mountains, and referred to as “the whore’s crack.”

One day, Pasquali is stunned by the vision of a young, striking, blonde American actress, Dee Moray and baffled as to why she is staying at his inn. He learns that she is sick, and waiting for the famous publicity agent, Michael Deane, to take her to Switzerland for treatment. She stays at the ramshackle inn for a few days. Walter depicts their friendship with exquisite wistfulness and beauty. Her Italian and his English are as rocky as the cliffs surrounding the village, but a meeting of the souls eclipses language. On an outing together, they climb the cliffs high above the Ligurian Sea so that Pasquali can show Dee five frescoes painted on the wall inside a machine-gun pillbox bunker left over from World War II. At this scene, I almost wept. These frescoes become the most poignant visual metaphor of the book.

Alvis Bender, an American writer with writer’s block, traumatized from his experience in the war, stays at the inn annually, and has left his one devastating chapter in the drawer in Dee’s room. It is an astonishing chapter, one of the highlights of the novel. It is a treat to witness the variety of stories that make up Walter’s one larger story.

The novel alternates non-linearly from 1962 to contemporary time in Hollywood, Calfornia, where Claire Silver, a scholar of film archives, works for the now legendary film producer Michael Deane. Claire is on the cusp of quitting her job and leaving her boyfriend, and is suffering from several regrets. She is braced for another insipid film pitch when she receives a surprising visitor.

In this pensive, reflective, aesthetically pleasing, and geographically stunning story, we meet a disparate cast of characters that are ultimately linked. There’s also a washed-up rock musician, a frustrated screenwriter, and a cameo appearance by a certain alcoholic son of a Welsh coal miner–a brief but rollicking insertion of a true-to-life legend that is so spectacular and credible, it almost outshines the rest of the book. But the rest of the novel is exquisite, so that the scenes in repose combine with eye-popping chapters, and give the book a sublime balance.

The story has an undulating, timeless presence. Patience is rewarded, as it ascends toward its peak with a languid pace. The outcome may be a little too neat for some readers, but it is a minor flaw that is incidental to the mature and subtle elegance rendered on every page. As time passes, it continues to echo with its alluring characters, resonating themes, and delicate visual beauty and symmetry.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 1,407 readers
PUBLISHER: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (April 2, 2013)
REVIEWER: Betsey Van Horn
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Jess Walter
EXTRAS: Excerpt
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March 16, 2014 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , ,  · Posted in: 2013 Favorites, Contemporary, Facing History, italy, Literary, US Northwest, World Lit

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