By: Mackenzie Patel
WANT Esteemed Writer
Italian Riviera in the 1960s. Breathless American actress gracing the shores of a forgotten town. Startling eyes more azure than the thrashing waters below the cliffs. This and much more consumed the pages of Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, a novel about long lost love, the corrupted world of movie stars, and the ethereal-like quality of Italy. The book starts off with the tale of Pasquale, an Italian born and raised in the small fishing village of Porto Vergogna. He owns a small hotel on the rocky shores and barely gets any patrons until one day, Dee Moray, an American actress with a stunning profile, happens to arrive by motorboat one April morning. Except her unique looks aren’t the only quality about her; she is supposedly dying of stomach cancer and has come to escape the hectic pace of Rome, the famed city where Cleopatra is being filmed. The novel continuously switches between Italy in the past (c.1960s) and present day California. Cutting to Los Angeles around 2012, Walter goes on to introduce Claire Silver (an adroit assistant of Michael Deane), Shane Wheeler (a rundown wannabe with Hollywood aspirations), and Michael Deane (the legendary movie producer with ample money and Botox injections to his name). All the events mesh together around the life of Dee Moray, with the now aged Pasquale coming to Hollywood to settle old scores with Michael Deane (who double-crossed Moray) and finding his elusive love from the ‘60s. Filled with travel stories, beautifully described scenery, and poignant parts that are so sharp and descriptive they could cut the eye, this novel is a must-read. Although the chapters of the book containing the current day dialogue were somewhat lackluster (i.e. the many “burnout characters” like Pat and Daryl got repetitive after a while), the descriptions of a deserted Italian shoreline and Florence after WWII made up for the modern garbage. A character not to be missed is definitely Alvis Bender, the WWII veteran who journeys to Pasquale’s humble inn every year to continuously write and re-write the first chapter of his supposed war novel. Dragging the reader back to a WWII ravaged Italy and a brief rendezvous with a brazen woman trying to avoid being raped, Bender describes his hardships in an almost desperate, Hemingway-like tone. In fact, the whole novel is so full of juxtaposing imagery (i.e. brutal scenes of the war contrasted to the glitzy world of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Rome).
One chapter that I particularly loved was when Pasquale and Dee were hiking up the cliffs of the Italian Riviera, taking in the salt, sea, and wild beauty. Pasquale revealed a hidden WWII bunker to Dee; it was built for German soldiers to monitor the sea. Inside the crumbling stone hideout, there were beautiful portraits of a young girl and two German soldiers as well as a seascape. Throughout the whole novel, these hidden artistic gems were referenced several times, with Dee constantly wondering about the fate of that soldier. Did he survive the war? Did he marry the stunning girl etched into the rocks? Alas, the reader eventually discovers what happened to that unfortunate man at the end of the book (spoiler alert, it isn’t all peaches and roses). The ubiquitous images seemed to haunt my memory, and I kept thinking about their location, meaning, and ultimate irrelevance. But, such is life, I suppose.
Although the reader is sometimes confused—it seems like ten different stories are being spun and crazily intertwined simultaneously—the ending sews up loose ends, leaving no messy frays behind. Overall, if one is enamored with the Mediterranean culture, fifty year long romances that entertain the mind and senses, and the idea that even the most wayward people can tread the right path again, then add this book to your reading list now. Even better, the book is a quick read (337 pages) that won’t take ages to read (yes, Crime and Punishment, I am referring to you.)
Other books by Jess Walter?
Article originally published (with modifications) on Tampa Bay Time’s website
Photo Credit: Antonio Cinotti