Put down the book you are currently reading and pick up BEAUTIFUL RUINS. Put it down. Now walk away. Walk. Away.
Jess Walter’s latest novel is a stunning and nuanced page-turner spanning multiple lives and a good portion of the past half-century. It begins in 1962 in a tiny fishing village on the Italian coastline. Pasquale Tursi owns the Hotel Adequate View, a family business as unassuming as its location. The hotel is primarily visited by lost tourists, until one day an American starlet named Dee Moray steps onto Pasquale’s shores and sets into motion a series of events that leads Pasquale towards his life’s purpose.
"Jess Walter’s latest novel is a stunning and nuanced page-turner spanning multiple lives and a good portion of the past half-century.... Stories of utter despair or rigid victory die quickly in our collective consciousness, but it’s the tale of the beautiful ruin that endures."
Fast forward to the present day, when an elderly Italian man shows up on the doorstep of a Hollywood production company looking for his first love, an actress who visited his hotel many years before. Ensnared in this slow-moving love story are a myriad of characters: a cynical production assistant, a failed musician, an alcoholic veteran, a wanna-be screenwriter, a conniving Hollywood producer, and Richard Burton himself, whose passions ignite the whole story.
At the beginning of the novel, Pasquale likens his American guest’s beauty to a composite work of architecture: “Pasquale recalled from his studies how some buildings in Florence could disappoint from various angles and yet always presented well in relief; that the various vantages were made to be composed; and so, too, he thought, some people.” Such a thing could well be said of the characters who populate this book. Walter imbues each distinctive voice with incredible detail and depth (Richard Burton is particularly ingenious), but none of his characters would be able to shoulder the scope of the novel by himself. These are people who seek and rarely find, whose journeys lead them to become jaded or greedy or content or wise. Maybe they are ruined, but in the sounds of their crumbling, there is familiarity and even grace. Each character’s story sheds light on another: the wanna-be screenwriter pitches a cannibal movie to the parasitic Hollywood producer; the rising star seduces a powerful actor on the set of Cleopatra; the attention-loving musician finds success in a play about his own failures. These characters are facets that, when connected, form an incisive commentary on our life pursuits and passions.
Some writers are word wizards, finding just the right adjective to fit the description. Others compose sentences, arranging each lyrical line like music. Stylistically, Walter is a master of the paragraph. He is at the top of his form when compiling a short, contained burst of writing that takes us from its inference to its punchy, rounded conclusion. Some of the truly great passages in this novel are asides: bits of inner monologue or digression from one of the characters. These passages are ripe for quotation, and one can imagine Walter spending a full day on each of them, choosing just the right words to convey his meaning quickly and completely. Though the novel clearly has something to teach, there is no bitter aftertaste of authorial manipulation. Instead, the reader is left with the gently uplifting sense that wisdom can be learned along any life path, if only one would pause to reflect.
This is not a happy novel, but it’s a hopeful one. Stories of utter despair or rigid victory die quickly in our collective consciousness, but it’s the tale of the beautiful ruin that endures.
Reviewed by Shelby Wardlaw on August 2, 2012