I recently broke a reading drought with Beautiful Ruins, a remarkable and transporting novel that swept me away not only to a remove village in Italy on the coast but also to Hollywood. It goes back and forth in time to tell the full story of a group of people whose lives intermingle. There’s a famous film producer, his assistant, a once known actress, the real Richard Burton during the time he broke up Elizabeth Taylor’s marriage, an Italian fisherman and his family and a struggling screen writer. It doesn’t take long for the reader to figure out what they all have in common: A need for redemption. A need to make more of their lives than they already have before it’s too late. A sense of loneliness and desperation and a hope for a second chance.
The story unfolds in 1962 in Porto Vergogna with Pasquale standing on a beach of the village where he lives with his family. They own and operate a small hotel and restaurant. When he takes sight of a boat bringing an American actress, Dee Moray, he knows his life will never be the same again. We detect she feels the same way, but she is in Italy to film the hit film “Cleopatra” in Rome and has bigger fish to fry. It turns out she is pregnant with Richard Burton’s baby and her producer Michael Deane wants to send her to Switzerland for an abortion. But at first he tells her she is dying of stomach cancer, which we also believe for a short period, because he is trying to save his film which only a relationship between his two leads can do (scandal = great publicity). In real life, Elizabeth Taylor was leaving Eddie Fisher, her new husband and Cleopatra” was an expensive, doomed venture without their bit of scandal.
But roads diverge and Pasquale and Dee part ways and as we fluctuate in time to periods in the present, we learn that Deane is now a glitzy, not very successful producer looking for his next great project. His assistant, Claire, is looking for a job and has been offered a position as the curator of a museum that’s a cover up for Scientologists. She spends all day reading scripts and taking bad pitches for reality shows she has no interest in and has a boyfriend whose only real love is porn. Just as she’s about to give it all up, Pasquale and a fledgling screenwriter appear in her life and change the trajectory. Their story takes us back in tine to understand what happened with Pasquale and Dee and catches us up with them again fifty years later when they appear in Clarie’s office.
I read this book in a day, literally, after not having read very much the last few months. This book has reignited my love for reading and for that I am grateful. I really enjoyed Jess Walter’s writing style and use of juxtapositions. He brought all of his characters to life and made them all beautiful yet ruined at the same time. They are all damaged people trying to find a bit of peace in life. They’re all trying to come to terms with their mistakes. As a film buff and one who is very aware of Hollywood gossip, particularly from the golden, olden days, the scenes in the 1960s really resonated with me as I found the inclusion of real celebrities interesting. I wanted Pasquale and Dee to reunite and I never imagined their meeting would take place the way it does. But I want you to read the book to find out more so I will stop here.
Beautiful Ruins is good for an airplane ride, time spent on the beach or an afternoon under a tree. It’s a read you won’t forget so fast.