Beautiful Ruins

Beautiful Ruins

3.8 313
by Jess Walter

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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

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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. Gloriously inventive, constantly surprising, Beautiful Ruins is a story of flawed yet fascinating people, navigating the rocky shores of their lives while clinging to their improbable dreams.

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Editorial Reviews

Jess Walter's sixth novel combines black comedy and two love stories in such a devious, time-hopping way that coming to understand what's going on in Beautiful Ruins brings the thrill of epiphany. This is partly a narrative ploy for creating mystery and suspense, and partly a reflection of what I take to be Walter's view of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, a world in which reality, so-called, is expertly manipulated by powerful interests. Walter conveyed this pervasive and insidious control most brilliantly and disturbingly in The Zero, and she does so again here, though with more of an eye to laughter than horror.

We begin — though of course it is not the beginning — in 1962, in a tiny, isolated Italian fishing village, a place so quiet that "only death was quieter." Here Pasquale Tursi is trying, with unwarranted optimism, to create a sandy beach and tennis court to attract tourists to his family's little pensione, the unpresumptuously named Hotel Adequate View. To his and the village's astonishment, a young and impossibly beautiful American woman arrives, ferried in on a boat. She is dying, she has been told, of cancer. Her story and Pasquale's make up two of the book's intermittently surfacing threads.

Meanwhile — though of course it's not meanwhile but next up — twenty- eight-year-old Claire Silvers is in present-day Hollywood, steeling herself to dump a deadbeat boyfriend and to quit her job as assistant to producer Michael Deane. The latter, once a major figure in Hollywood, is now reduced to producing a "reality" show called Hookbook, twinned to a dating site called in "a steaming pile of TV/Web synchronicity." He is a shuffling, seventy-year-old man to whom the dark arts of cosmetic surgery have given "the face of a nine-year-old Filipino girl." A miracle of crassness and opportunism, he brings perfect joy to the reader every time he appears.

While Claire gets on with thinking about her future, Shane Wheeler, a veteran loser, is preparing to fly from Beaverton, Oregon, to Hollywood to pitch his screenplay to Claire, hoping Deane will produce it. It concerns a member of the Donner Party and his efforts to save his family; a synopsis of it makes up part of the novel, thus hurling us back to 1846.

Also cropping up now and again is Alvis Bender, a writer who visits the Hotel Adequate View every year to work on his novel about his experiences in the Second World War. Over the years, he has come up with only one chapter, but it too makes it into this book. And then there is Pat, a disappointed singer-songwriter and boozer. He gets us to London and Edinburgh. Finally — though not last — there's Richard Burton, bottle in hand, fresh off the set of Cleopatra, which is being filmed, disastrously, in Rome.

It was Deane, we learn from an (until now) unpublished chapter in his memoir, who saved the fast-sinking production of Cleopatra from going completely under in 1962. The previous two years had brought calamity of every description, and the picture was becoming more of a dud. Now it was hit by what would seem to be the fatal blow: the searing-hot, on- location love affair/brawl of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. She is the woman, after all, who had stolen Eddie Fisher from America's sweetheart, Debbie Reynolds. Now Liz has dumped the soppy crooner for the notorious Welsh actor, philanderer, and rum pot. The affair, with its tantrums and exhibitions of lust, was, writes Deane in his memoir, "a car wreck. A ten-car pileup." It was becoming impossible to keep the presumably disapproving public from learning about it. Deane, hired as a fixer, comes up with the solution and discovers his genius: "I saw the whole world in a flash and I recognized it at once," he reports:

Dick wanted Liz. Liz wanted Dick. And we want car wrecks. We say we don't. But we love them. To look is to love. A thousand people drive past the statue of David. Two hundred look. A thousand people drive past a car wreck. A thousand look.
It is impossible to say much about the plot without ruining its surprises or revealing Deane's acts of inspired deception and treachery. But I can say that Walter's sardonic wit and mischievous intelligence shine out to the very end. It is gloriously and darkly funny that this menagerie of characters and disparate elements come together as a story because of the machinations of that "lacquered elf," Michael Deane. Brazen master of spin, he is a genius for whom pandering to debased appetites is a form of largess, for whom lies and perfidy are creative acts. He is the demiurge of this story and of our time.

Katherine A. Powers reviews books widely and has been a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle.

Reviewer: Katherine A. Powers

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Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.30(d)

What People are saying about this

Selman Blair

“It is a powerful and lush book.”

Ben Fountain

“[N]othing less than brilliant, a tour de force that crosses decades, continents, and genres, to powerful and often hilarious effect....A masterful novel of love, loss, and hard-won hope that satisfies on every level.”

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

“Within a page-turner of a plot, these triumphantly vulnerable characters leap off the page to take up permanent residence in your inner life. The effect is so powerful that to be untouched by Beautiful Ruins might well be like having no inner life at all.”

Daniel Handler

“This is a blockbuster, with romance, majesty, comedy, smarts, and a cast of thousands. There’s lights, there’s camera, there’s action. If you want anything more from a novel than Jess Walter gives you in Beautiful Ruins, you’re getting thrown out of the theater.”

Maureen Corrigan

“A literary miracle.”

Richard Russo

“Why mince words? Beautiful Ruins is an absolute masterpiece.”

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The Beautiful Ruins 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 313 reviews.
JanTX More than 1 year ago
I work in a bookstore, go through books like water, and share all kinds of recommendations with customers. I read British and Scandinavian mysteries, heavier novels like "Freedom," literate non-fiction---generally, everything from best-sellers to classics. So I'm not a book snob, but don't tend to read the lightest of light, either. I loved the Dragon Tattoo series, and all of Elizabeth Strout's books. Sometimes I plow through rewarding, beautifully written books. But I do tend to whine a bit about this question--why can't authors write books that are entertaining, with mesmerizing characters, interesting settings, relationships between people that are real, flawed, but occasionally deep, and compassionate?.A story that makes me laugh, blink with recognition, and want to cheer out loud for the characters? But where the story doesn't pretend life is not what it really is, either, so that I can't believe it. Then I picked up Beautiful Ruins. And there it was. Buy this book, savor it, and encourage Jess Walters to keep writing.
lindianajones More than 1 year ago
This is a novel of utmost grace and beauty. It spans the decades from World War 2 to present day. It leads you lyrically through Italy and the United States. It trips through the automobile industry, the film industry and the writing industry. It drives you through learning Italian, teaching Drama and living your life. It takes you from the bottom of the worst bits of life to the peak of the ultimate best parts. A wonderfully delicious novel for all five senses. I read this book in two days, unable to put it down. Well worth the buzz it is getting.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am a voracious reader-at least two books a week. I loved this book-it is the best work of fiction I've read all year. It was beautifully written with wonderfully developed characters. It was one of those novels that you're sad to see end. I will be looking for other works by Jess Walter.
OurBookAddiction More than 1 year ago
As usual I’m in the minority of the glowing reviews on this. I’m having a serious problem with rating this book. For starters, I read it all in one day so I was engaged in the story. I didn’t even mind so much the back and forth between time as it was necessary to the storyline. But I do take issue with writers who feel the need to fill pages up with unnecessary writing. Examples – Alvis, the wanna-be-writer that goes to the hotel each year to write more of his book. Leaves behind what he has written so far and then we have to read the entire thing within the book? Shane, the wanna-be-screenwriter who along with reading in detail the “pitch” for the screenplay, we have to actually read the entire pages of the pitch also. This kind of fluff irritates me greatly in books. A writer needs to keep the story tight and not meander off because that is how you lose a reader. It is usually at this point where disengaged readers chuck the book to the bedside never to be picked up again. I found myself skimming through all that as I heard the voices of the parents on Charlie Brown in the back of my head saying “wok, wok, wok, wok, wok…” But when all this wasn’t going on, I did enjoy the book. So I’m giving it a solid 3 which by Goodreads standards means “I liked it”. In my mind though, it could have been a 4 or 5 if we weren’t dragged through unnecessary details. Those parts were just painful to me.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
On the surface it's a bubbly, summery tale about Hollywood and Italy in the 60s and currently; underneath it's a lovely and timeless reflection on love and life and desire and duty. Good stuff.
silencedogoodreturns More than 1 year ago
wow! Found this book by accident...admit I started reading based on cover picture and Mediterranean scenery. But I actually discovered an amazing book that was a very real delight and pleasure to read. A great story of human feelings, behaviours, failings and living life, all played out against a background of a small town Italian dreamer and Hollywood. And what an inspiration by the author to make Richard Burton of all people a key piece of a fictional story. Try this book, you won't be disappointed, you'll love it.
NahvilleReader More than 1 year ago
I almost put this book down without finishing it. It seemed disjointed when I wanted it to continue the story it was teling in the beginning. Sticking with it will reward you with a good story interwoven well together. It was an enjoyable read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Timeless recognition of life, human intentions, . I adored this book and found it to be beautifully written. Wondrous visual verbiage creates a luscious landscape for your imagination. I enjoyed the raw emotion felt and shown through each character. Being so much involved with film and theater towards the end, the last chapter's layout was not my favorite but relevant to the format of storytelling in the latter half of the novel.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Beautiful Ruins is so aptly named. In turns tragic and poignant but still romantically ideal, from the lovely settings to the perfectly formed characters. I highly recommend.
tetonpilates More than 1 year ago
A sweet, poignant mixed up story that does more than tell of people's intertwined lives.  It paints their lives with both the bold sweeps of successes and the dark tones of failures; the ruins aren't ugly at all.  I love the characters and how the author keeps moving the tale forward, sometimes jumping decades but then taking us back to the place we first met the protagonist and the others.  Intelligent writing, terrific descriptions, engaging characters.  Five stars easily. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this book. The switching back and forth between areas, times, and people was a first a bit confusing but I couldn't put the book down after I became comfortable with the characters and places. I love the mention of the different places in Italy. It's made me curious enough to check out some of these places in the future. I also enjoyed reading about the seedy side to the industry in Hollywood. I wouldn't doubt that a similar situation could have occurred as was described in the scandal laid out in this story. Very fun read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is well written and a fast read. The characters are likable and it is interesting to find out how their lives are connected.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was a great story.. although i must admit was a tad frustrating at the onset, going back and forth between eras... BUT kept me reading avidly for my vacation at the beach ! A must read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I had heard great reviews on the book that's why I purchased it. It was a nice read, nice story but that was about it. I found it a little slow.
reader67 More than 1 year ago
Beautifully written. A true joy to read. You become immersed in the story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I chose to read this book because of the setting. While it was enjoyable I also found it took quite a while to "come together". Great idea for a storyline....could have been executed a little better.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An actress who had a supporting role in the filming of Cleopatra arrives at a very remote town, only assessable by boat, along the Italian coast. This sets up a sequence of events that unfold over fifty years ending up in Hollywood. At times, very well written, cleverly satirical, poignant (specially the ending). Unfortunately, other chapters are over the top satirical or dwell on basically crude behavior. Worth reading, but be prepared for a mixed bag.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I very much enjoyed this book. The timeline is a little jumpy, and all the characters are lovable! Very touching finish. Iwould and did recommend :)
kalevala More than 1 year ago
Also a voracious reader of what I consider good literature, I loved this book! Spans WW II in Italy through modern times and includes the 1960s and the era of the big production movies. The characters are interesting, and interwoven. The prose is enjoyable. This is a sophisticated piece. The characters will remain with you! All I can say is "Richard Burton" (no, not Richard Parker!)
MattCH More than 1 year ago
This book is absolutely astounding. It is near countless interwoven stories of seemingly unlinked lives that span across five decade and come together - influencing each aspect of the story - in a way that flows completely naturally, but with no shortage of great surprise. The language is beautiful. The relationships are complex, but the emotions that hold them together are simple. Highly recommended.
Ravenclaw226 More than 1 year ago
So I know I'm kind of late to the Beautiful Ruins party, however I must say to anyone who still has not read it that you really should! I will be honest, at first I found the constant time switches a bit hard to negotiate as one chapter you will be in this little Italian town in the 60's then you'll fast forward to a completely different set of characters in the present. However moving past that, the whole charm of this book is the related content between all these moments in time, characters from the 60's or from the modern day, a soldier from the last world war, all of their story lines become intertwined into this beautiful tale of love and stories. "Stories are people. I'm a story, you're a story...your father is a story. Our stories go in every direction, but sometimes, if we're lucky, our stories join into one, and for a while, we're less alone." So if you are looking for a light summer read for the beach, or a good book for your book club, or just want something that isn't so heavy to sit and enjoy, make sure to grab this next time you are out shopping!
Katykins More than 1 year ago
Cant get into it. Makes no sense to me at all.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
this book sucked, no plot, boring characters and terrible ending. the description on the back made it look great but is was truly awful I would never recommend it ever
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Characters were poorly developed and didn't generate reader sympathy. I couldn't have cared less what happened to them. Some interesting incidents, but not enough to keep me fully engaged, and by emphasizing Hollywood-based characters and issues the author didn't need to utilize his own imagination as much as if he had written a truly original story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Truly, I loved every word! So sad it had to end.