Description from Goodreads: The story begins in 1962. On a rocky patch of the sun-drenched Italian coastline, a young innkeeper, chest-deep in daydreams, looks on 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.
I thought our story was epic, you know. You and me. Spanning years and continents. Lives ruined and blood shed. Epic. But summer’s almost here and we won’t see each other all. And then you’ll leave town, and then… it’s over.
You might think I’m a huge dork for using this quote (and you’d be right), BUT, it actually really fits the story of this book so well. And I thought that was a great place to start talking about the ambitiousness of this novel. There is a love story (more than one) that takes MANY years to get going and it’s a little frustrating because you want the characters to stop and think for a sec, but it feels all very real and the actions of each character feel genuine because nothing comes easy outside of a book.
There are MANY characters in this novel. But if you pay attention, you won’t get lost because each character has a personality and voice all their own. Jess Walter is an incredibly talented writer, and I had heard that already from other readers that had read some of his other novels, but it’s impossible to picture unless you crack open this book and see what I mean. There were parts of Beautiful Ruins that I didn’t love, but even the parts that didn’t resonate with me were written in a ridiculously skilled manner. This is the author most other authors want to write like. It just seems to come easy to him.
Beautiful Ruins is not just about the love story though. It’s about all the different characters living their lives, achieving their dreams (or not achieving them as the case may be), and how all the stories connect to each other and why. Most of the characters are NOT likable and that’s why I come away from this one feeling a bit conflicted. I am not sure if they are supposed to be or not (I KNOW Michael Deane is not but what about the rest?), but I didn’t like most of them. The two main leads were somewhat lovable I suppose, but even they had moments where I pretty much despised them. And it’s okay sometimes when the characters are shallow jerks as long as the story and writing keep you engaged (Great Gatsby anyone?), and here it worked shockingly well. I spent a couple of chapters with my mouth hanging open and I’m not joking.
The novel is written in different chapters that almost feel like vignettes or short stories of their own. There are MANY different POVs, but they never felt the same, and as someone who often finds that multiple POVs don’t work AT ALL, my head nearly exploded over how a skilled writer handled it. I can see why this book was the talk of the publishing world in 2012, and I am truly interested to see what Jess Walters puts out next. I looked at his backlist, and I can’t say that I’m interested in his other novels, but maybe the future ones.
Anyway, this review has kind of meandered all over the place, but I do recommend it. Greatly. It’s not a book for everyone, that’s for sure, but if you’ve been curious about this one for a while as I was, I think you should pick it up. The paperback is about to come out (it might have already), and this novel is atmospheric, epic (spanning years and continents, *coughs “Hi, Logan” coughs*) and I enjoyed almost every second of it.