Audie Award Nominee, Fiction and Best Solo Narration, 2013
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 50 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.
©2012 Jess Walter (P)2012 HarperCollins Publisher
There is no Frigate like a Book To take us Lands away Nor any Coursers like a Page Of prancing Poetry – Emily Dickinson
Yup, I loved it. There are so many interesting facets of this book. First and foremost, there's a good story. I think the book would stand alone on that fact. However, there's more. It is really funny, too. The social satire is biting... taking the biggest bite out of the movie industry. Michael Deane's character is villainous, and the continued descriptions of him are hysterical. Here's just one example:
“It may be impossible to trace the sequence of facials, spa treatments, mud baths, cosmetic procedures, lifts and staples, collagen implants, outpatient touch-ups, tannings, Botox injections, cyst and growth removals and stem-cell injections that have caused a 72-year-old man to have the face of a 9-year-old Filipino girl.”
Richard Burton is also portrayed as a villain, and in a tragically funny way. It is interesting that all the Hollywood characters are ALWAYS mentioned by the author with their full names. So it's always, "Richard Burton did this, " and ," Michael Deane did such and such." The only time they are called by their first name is if a character is speaking to them or about them. I loved this device as yet another way to show their soul-lessness. They only seem to exist as their Hollywood character and not as a human being with a heart. The only Hollywood character who escapes this naming device is Dee Moray, and this is because she is NOT just a Hollywood-type character and is actually one of the "good guys" in the novel.
The book is also romantic and thought provoking. I love the way Richard Burton's villainy provokes Pasquale to "do the right thing." He thinks back to when his mother talked to him about “how much much easier life would be if our intentions and our desires could always be aligned. “ Later in the story, he acts on this lesson. I felt like this was the highlight or climax of the book, what it was really building up to, at least as far as the Pasquale story goes, and it made me sob, which I love. (spoiler alert here; couldn’t help including this.)
“And when beautiful Amedea lifted Bruno from the stroller, Pasquale thought again of his mother on the beach that day—her fear that, when she was gone, Pasquale wouldn’t be able to bridge the gap between what he wanted and what was right. He wished he could reassure his mother: a man wants many things in life, but when one of them is also the right thing, he would be a fool not to choose it.”
The title: it can refer to so many things, but mainly it refers to the ruins of people's lives and dreams. Almost everyone in the book has dreams of “making it big,” and the dreams never turn out to be what they expected, BUT in large part their lives are beautiful in spite of it.
I love the descriptions of the paintings on the WWII bunker and when Dee at Pasquale realize that the impact of the paintings would not be the same if the wall were displaced into a museum. It is the whole geography of the paintings that makes them so special, and somehow I think they represent the longing to have love and a beautiful life that Pasquale and Dee Moray have throughout the book. And the paintings are also "beautiful ruins." Will the girl in the paintings get reunited? Will Pasquale and Dee ever find their true love or see each other again? The paintings are "ruins" also, but they immortalize the longing and beauty of love. At the end we find out that this story, too, isn’t quite what we thought it was. Another “Beautiful Ruin”?
And then there is that Donner! story. The story itself is pretty lame, as it's supposed to be, but what I liked is how when Michael Deane's group goes to Idaho to find Claire, the author describes them all in terms of the Donner party. That cracked me up. For example, the author starts out the chapter called “Front Man” with a comparison, “At 11:14 A.M., the doomed Deane Party departs LAX on the first leg of its epic journey… “ (location 4938) and he doesn’t let us forget the comparison to the Donner party as Shane considers ways to get more money for his Donner! story.
“In the Emerald City the tragic Deane Party changes planes, Shane ever so casually mentioning that the ground they’ve covered so far in just over two hours would’ve taken William Eddy months to travel.
‘And we haven’t even had to eat anyone’, Michael Deane says…. “ (location4959)
The various writing techniques the author uses are interesting. The Donner! story as a chapter is one example, and then using Michael Deane's first chapter of his autobiography as a chapter in the real book is another. This first chapter is also hysterical and adds to the reader's already poor opinion of MD. It also adds another perspective to the story of Michael and Dee Moray.
Variety of perspective is definitely on display throughout the book. The stories of the various characters constantly illuminate different elements of the plot, and sometimes one character's story reaches back in time and finally unveils what we've been wondering about another character. I like that convoluted way of moving the plot forward. It is interesting.
Michael Deane says his great epiphany was "People want what they want." This revelation shaped his career. His talent is to divine what people want and get it for them. This comes into play in several areas of the book. The "Lydia play" at the end of the book demonstrates how this is true for several people. First of all, Pat Bender and Lydia want what they want: each other over all those years. But then the play makes Claire realize her love for Darrell, and also Shane realizes how he messed up with his first wife. The play causes them to re examine their lives. The Michael Deane theme that "everyone wants what they want and they won't/can't be dissuaded from it” portrays all these couples and their continued love and longing. Even though MD is a despicable character, I did recognize that he had this special ability, and he made quite a career out of it.
Lit Lovers book club questions
Jess Walter interview, Salon
"Richard Burton appears in the book, to great effect. How much research did you do on him? How many of his films had you seen, and did you watch after you decided to include him as a character? I love that the title comes from the piece describing Burton on Dick Cavett (I watched the clips on YouTube…there are worse people to be on a boat off the coast of Italy with).
I always do a lot of research, immerse myself so that I believe it, then set the nonfiction aside and let it become fiction. So, yes, I read books and watched Burton films and interviews and, my favorite, old footage of him on stage (Burton’s “Hamlet”, in black and white, filmed from a distance with an unmoving camera, is stunning … you can’t believe the power coiled in that body and voice, especially when compared to the craggy old sot who appears in that Cavett interview). His relationship to his art (acting) and fame really hovered over the entire novel, over all the characters and their attempts to express themselves through novels and stories and music and plays and acting and painting. He was sort of a talisman for the book but I didn’t know if the chapter with him in it would make sense. I wrote and jettisoned so many chapters along the way (including Dee dying in the 1980s and even a po-mo chapter in which I entered my own book to pitch a film version of “The Zero“ … it was like crawling down a hall, finding a closed door, then backing up and trying another hall. But as soon as I wrote Burton, I felt like I was crawling in the right direction."
mindnumbingly boring and is nothing like the overview implied. I thought it was a story about a village in Italy. Turns out its about a whole lot of "hasbeens" in the performing arts.
Wrote an actual story instead of a play that could have taken place in one room. Most of the book was dialog and monolog. No action at all.
I didnt bother with the second half. By then it had twigged to me that this was some old persons idea of a love story. BORING. The write up on the book being a future hit and best seller is misleading, and beyond me. It drones on and on and on .......I had to put it down. Sorry.
Overall the book was only OK, it did not grab my interest from beginning to end
Not with a ten foot pole
Crude, poor language throughout, talk of drugs, and the low life of society, story held together with sex talk
Did fine with what he had to work with
Disgust! A total waste of time. Kept thinking it would redeem itself
Don't waste your money. Audible should have a rating about language, sex, etc.
This had such good reviews...and I am not a very picky reader so I was suprised by how much i didn't like this book. I thought the stories were pretty cheesy...and I didn't have a huge desire to tune back in. Maybe if you live in California you would like this one...but I thought there were way to many cringe worthy stereotypes...including the love stories.
I like that they tied everything together in the end so that you could take away a life lesson. I just didn't love that good happened to good people and bad happened to bad almost like a kids story.
I was seduced by the reviews for this book, but highly disappointed. The reader is good,(apart from his attempt at an Irish accent) but the story is not. I have got half way though, hoping it will get better, but it hasn't. The characters are overdone and the story jumps between times & characters and is very disjointed. The characters are caricatures, so instead of being drawn into the lives of the characters, I found myself cringing at them.
Development of the characters
I'll listen to the narrator, but I'll think twice about anything by the author
None. Everything was so superficial. The only character that was developed to a certain extent was Pasquale. His emotions seem real; the others I did not believe in for one second. I have been going to the coasts and lakes of Italy since 1957 and probably
expected too much. But any "Housewifes of..." has more character development than
Beautiful Ruins. I understand one can only describe the celebrities, because their personalities are too well known, but the remainder was abysmal.
Disappointment and anger at being hoodwinked into a tearjerker.
The above should be enough.
Didn't enjoy the flipping back and forth between characters and their stories between chapters, but I'm sure that is part of the art of this story.
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