Friday, August 2, 2013

Book Review: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

Beautiful Ruins

Author: Jess Walter
Publisher: HarperCollins
Date of Publication: June 12, 2012
Pages: 368 (Nook edition) 

     What a pleasant surprise this novel was.  When it was first published in 2012 I read a brief blurb about its premise: a beautiful but terminally ill actress shows up unexpectedly in a small Italian fishing village.  I immediately dismissed it from my list of potential reads.  Even though I read the author before (Edgar Award winner Citizen Vince) and enjoyed that book very much, this sounded too much like a romance novel for my taste.  However, I kept seeing the book showing up on "Best Books of (fill in the blank)" lists.  It was like this book kept presenting itself to me telling me to read it.  So I did.

     The author does a splendid job of juggling multiple plot lines in two different time periods.  It's really like two novels woven into one.  Walter does this so seamlessly that there is never any confusion about what is going on or when.  He brings the two story lines together spectacularly at the end.

     The novel does begin with the maudlin premise of a dying young actress appearing mysteriously at a remote Italian fishing village.  She stays at a former brothel which a young Italian fellow is trying to re-invent as a hotel and vacation destination for "rich Americans".  The novel does indeed evolve into a love story of sorts, but an unpredictable and richly satisfying one.  The plot elements include Hollywood legend (the making of "Cleopatra" in Rome in the early 1960s) and current Hollywood wheeling and dealing.

     The author has also constructed an admirable ensemble cast of colorful characters, not the least of which are Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.  The main characters in the first story (set in 1962) turn out to be the actress and the Italian hotelier, his extended family including a grieving mother and devious aunt and a motley bunch of fisherman and villagers. The main characters in the second story (set in the present day) are an aging movie producer and his ambitious and frustrated assistant.  The character that unites the two stories is the aforementioned actress.  How the author does this you need to read the book to find out.

     Beautiful Ruins cleverly sneaks in a repeated moral cunundrum for the reader to pause and ponder.  Through the stories of these varied characters, the author constantly poses this philosophical question: should humans act on impulse and satisfy their needs or should they always strive to do the right thing, even if the results of that action do not satisfy their wants or needs?  In the immortal words of the young hotelier's widowed mother: "It's best if what you want and what is best are close to the same thing."  For all of these characters, however, that is not always the case and uncomfortable choices need to be made.  Although it seems like the choices should be clear, more often than not, they aren't. 
     Jess Walter has many strengths as an author, all on display in Beautiful Ruins.  The plotting is superb, paced perfectly and with enough suspense to keep the pages turning quickly.  The characters he has created are engaging and, despite their many flaws, very likable.  His writing is very evocative and descriptive but he is able to do this with an economy of words.  The dialogue is genuine and gives insights into the characters and their motivations.  Finally, he is able to mix in just the right amount of humor and irony in order to amuse as well as entertain the reader.   

     Beautiful Ruins now scores a place on another "Best Of" list:  this is one of the best novels which I have read in a long, long time!

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