Review: Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins

The last few books I’ve reviewed have been heavy-hitters.  I had very high expectations for The Goldfinch and The Road.  That wasn’t the case with Beautiful Ruins.  All I knew about the book going into it was that it was set in Italy and involved an actress.

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These things ended up being true, but not a complete picture.  Goodreads has a much more comprehensive synopsis:

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.

All in all, I give Beautiful Ruins 4 out of 5 stars.  It is well-accompanied by a glass of wine and a Michael Buble album.  Sangiovese if you have it.

I enjoyed this book because although it is not a mystery, Walter is very intentional about when he reveals different parts of the story.  The book unfolds gently rather than abruptly, and its message is a whisper rather than a shout: every action, every day, has an impact on people around you and in the future.  The story is sweet and sentimental, but not sickening.  The writing is lovely, the characters palpable.  I was also pleasantly surprised that Beautiful Ruins features multiple narrators.  I’ve noticed over the years that I enjoy that type of book, from A Song of Ice and Fire to Dracula.

Among the other things I enjoyed about this book is its satisfying ending.  It is not giving too much away to say that Walter wraps up all of the loose ends, and no questions are left.

My only complaint about this novel is that I think more could have been done with one of our narrators, Claire.  Her storyline was at odds with the rest of the characters, and felt disjointed.  She is, undoubtedly, the character who young women will connect with, but I was unhappy with how disconnected her sections of storytelling were from the others.

Nonetheless, this book gets “warm and fuzzies” from me.  Grab your wine and your iPod and go to town!

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