“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.”
Thoughts: Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter, is a unique look at the paths one’s life will take throughout its course, resolving itself in ways never imagined. Pasquale is a young man forced to take up the family business of running a small hotel in an even smaller, dying coastal village. Dee is a young actress facing a mortal illness. Claire is a Hollywood assistant looking to reconcile her dream job with reality. Pat is a human tornado, bent on completely destroying his life even while others provide him ample opportunity to improve himself. Individually, their stories are interesting, but together, their stories highlight how complex this life really is, and how nothing ever ends up as one may hope.
The remarkable thing about Beautiful Ruins is the lack of a main character. While the story weaves itself around multiple characters, no one person can be labeled the hero or the heroine. For some, this is due to a lack of page time; a reader does not get the chance to really know the character as their story is but a brief aside to the larger story. For others, they appear in many scenes but their story is not more or less important than anyone else’s. If anything, these characters highlight how interwoven life really is and how much influence even the briefest of acquaintances can bestow upon another. Beautiful Ruins is not about Pasquale any more than it is about Dee or Michael or even Pat. Their lives intersect and were influenced by all of the others in such a way that to remove even one would bring the entire structure of the novel to a screeching halt. It is the very best type of an ensemble of characters who can only exist because of the others.
To this end, Mr. Walter highlights the importance of his ensemble cast through the multiple jumps in time and location. Even as he is forcing the reader to pay close attention to and get involved in one person’s story, he abruptly shifts focus to another decade and another character. While it keeps a reader’s interest, it can also become a frustrating plot device for those who just want to see how it all ends. Eventually, a reader will get there and see the story threads combine into one, but it takes a meandering route and patience before that occurs. Along the way, he pulls enough of the various strings to keep the story moving forward while weaving them into and out of each other as the story dictates. As a reader begins a new section and a new jump in the story, one is never quite certain which of the characters will appear at any given moment.
Along with the multiple characters is the idea of multiple themes. One cannot rightly say that Beautiful Ruins is about redemption or forgiveness or satisfaction or closure or even love. It is about all of those things, and yet it is not. Just as life is a journey, one that is unique to the individual, the lessons learned throughout the story are just as unique to the characters. Beautiful Ruins provides the momentum for readers to take a quiet moment for reflection, as each reader will draw from the story his or her own lessons to apply in real life.
Beautiful Ruins is a quiet novel without a major swell in drama or tension. Its stories unfold carefully and slowly, and while there are various surprise twists of the plot, the placidity of the novel remains. There is a dream-like quality to the story that allows a reader, nay almost forces a reader, to remain a remote and distant observer of the action. The characters are enjoyable, and the story itself is tremendously interesting. However, the lack of emotional involvement on the part of a reader makes it a pleasant read rather than an outstanding one. Unfortunately, this is a double-edged sword as a reader cannot help but feel that there should be more emotional connection, that the story should linger foremost in readers’ minds, and that to be called a pleasant story is not quite what Mr. Walter was hoping to achieve. One can see the potential and sadly acknowledge that the entire story did not quite make it. It is not a novel that will haunt a reader for days or even for weeks but is a perfect summer novel – enjoyable but non-involving, an easy read that moves quickly.
Acknowledgments: Thank you to HarperCollins for my review copy!