I have delayed writing a review of the truly lovely Beautiful Ruins because it’s a book that defies easy categorization. A little bit mystery, a little romance, a little historical fiction, even a little Hollywood. Jess Walters does a fantastic job of blending all these components into something smart, entertaining and lovely.
The action begins on a tiny Italian island in 1962. The Hollywood epic Cleopatra is filming nearby. Pasquale is a dreamer, intent on opening a romantic and successful hotel on his nothing of a destination. “He found himself inhabiting the vast, empty plateau where most people live, between boredom and contentment.” We meet him while he attempts to create a beach despite the pull of the tide and envisions tennis courts despite the rocky hills. Suddenly a mysterious American actress appears by boat and his life changes forever.
“Then she smiled, and in that instant, if such a thing were possible, Pasquale fell in love, and he would remain in love for the rest of his life–not so much with the woman, whom he didn’t even know, but with the moment.”
Walters writes many such moments throughout this novel. The action moves between 1962 and modern-day Hollywood, affecting multiple generations of dreamers – hoteliers, actors, producers, singers and writers. Even Richard Burton makes an appearance. We come to know these characters primarily through their broken dreams; yet the book never becomes depressing.
What I really loved is the way Walters carried me away to another world, another time. He puts me squarely inside the minds of his characters so that I’m on the journey with them. The characters themselves are the beautiful ruins of this novel. Each one seeks a dream life. None have found it, but that’s almost beside the point.
“True quests aren’t measured in time & distance anyway, so much as in hope. There are only two good outcomes for a quest like this, the hope of the serendipitous savant, sail for Asia and stumble on America, and the hope of scarecrows and tin men: that you find out you had the thing you sought all along.”
This is the kind of novel (rare to me) that continues to get better as it goes along. Walters throws in enough curve balls to keep the story surprising. We meet just enough characters to shift perspectives often, but each person is fully developed, integral to the story and engaging to readers.
“I think so, too. I know I felt that way. For years. It was as if I was a character in a movie and the real action was about to start at any minute. But I think some people wait forever, and only at the end of their lives do they realize that their life has happened while they were waiting for it to start.”
Oh how well I understand this sentiment. I may not have much in common with a mid-century Italian inn-keeper, but I get his heart, his dreams and even his fears.