Who could pass up a novel of an Italian man searching for the American actress he met forty plus years ago? I was instantly drawn to the storyline and cover artwork of Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. And as I missed my chance at living in Italy for six months, I was eager to indulge with this star-studded character list consisting of Richard Burton, and much reference to Elizabeth Taylor. The descriptions of lead Dee had me envisioning both Michelle Williams in A Week With Marilyn and Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita, with all the blonde but a little more reserve.
Beautiful Ruins weaves the stories of the Italian, the actress, the big-shot movie man (and his assistant), and the long-shot with flashbacks of a war-torn writer and hard-up musician into a delicate story of love and loss. Pasquale is a meager inn keeper in a sliver of remote, cliff side Italy. In 1962, he meets the actress Dee in a chance encounter on his shoreline, and the three days they spend together forever affect them. More recently Claire, the Hollywood assistant, finds herself swimming in a less than fulfilling life and hopes for a chance to wiggle out of legend Michael Deane’s grasp. The long-shot Shane goes to Hollywood to pitch a movie, but ends up more successful with his Italian than scoring a movie deal. It is in modern-day when Pasquale makes it to Michael Deane’s studio, haunting Deane into submission and launching the characters into an epic search for Dee Moray.
Along with these characters, the supporting roles of veteran Alvis and musician Pat help fill out the intricacies of complicated lives…including an account of the war and an impromptu stint in Northern Europe (that are both painful and enlightening to read).
Regardless of the characters’ roles, everyone in Beautiful Ruins was on a personal quest for truth and assurance. I did feel that some of the stories felt rushed. And maybe Walter incorporated too many facets, therefore blundering the ending with tying up loose-ends that
readers I had already forgotten about. The portions that took place beyond 1970s I had strained patience for. I would have been completely pleased with a closer following of Pasquale and Dee throughout the entire book, without the add-ins of the Donner! pitch and Michael Deane’s autobiography’s rejected first chapter (although I do realize the latter served as a nice explanation of the events in Italy circa 1962). I did enjoy the inclusion of Alvis’s book, however.
It is hard for me to pinpoint my favorite part of this book. I could easily say it was last few paragraphs which were so sweet it made me hurt (if only all of life could be so beautiful)…but I might say a rather sadder portion was my favorite simply because it was so easy to relate to: when Pasquale realizes he is not much different from Richard Burton, that Pasquale could not look down on Burton for his mistakes (because really, Burton’s mistakes mirrored his own). The clarity in which Pasquale sees himself as Burton and then makes the decision to change his fate is both powerful and relieving. It becomes the defining moment when the reader can reflect on his/her own life and see if there is anything they would change. Luckily, I wouldn’t change a thing.
My real hang-up with Beautiful Ruins is that Walter deviated from Pasquale’s and Dee’s stories. Michael Deane and Claire and Shane and Alvis and Pat (and even minor characters of Daryl, Lydia, Joe, and so on) –kind of exhausting to follow in a mere 292 pages. The layout of each chapter made it difficult to want to pick it back up and read it–and I didn’t feel much urgency coming through the writing. For a bit of juice (or what feels like gossip) before bedtime, however, Beautiful Ruins is a fine read.