☆☆➹⁀☆ 4 stars ☆➹⁀☆☆
What It’s About:
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. Gloriously inventive, constantly surprising, Beautiful Ruins is a story of flawed yet fascinating people, navigating the rocky shores of their lives while clinging to their improbable dreams.
Beautiful Ruins crosses the literary genres of historical fiction, romance, family drama, and social satire. I found some interesting humor in situations such as characters Pat and Alvis Bender being perpetually on a bender. The novel spans several eras from post-war Italy to modern-day Hollywood, and author Jess Walter braids together the storylines and characters from these eras nicely. In the audio version, the storyline intersections were difficult to see at first, and some of the segues were rough, making the story feel fragmented like broken porcelin. However, by the end, the author pulls together all the fragments into a beautiful mosaic made of all the broken bits.
In the audiobook, there are no stated/narrated chapter titles that indicate a change in venue or time period, so I found myself “ rewinding” to figure out if I inadvertently skipped a chapter. The choice to add some Italian language into the dialogue was not too hard to figure out, but I didn’t feel it added anything to the character or plot development. Once I adjusted to the flow of the story, I found myself highly engaged and entertained. Even if readers are discouraged at first, they’ll be rewarded for sticking with the book.
Jess Walter’s writing is evocative. The people and location descriptions were picturesque. Once the primary characters and story parts were introduced, the story flowed nicely. The dialogue felt organic and authentic in each era. Beautiful Ruins is about being content and finding happiness despite our vast imperfections. The author refers to his characters as having lovely, wrecked lives. He shows how all his primary and secondary characters had very imperfect lives and loves, but in the end, it is fine, good even. Maybe not that of a romantic box-office hit movies, but a good life.
Jess Walter’s story telling is interesting. Readers are given a wide array of quirky characters in odd situations that are just this side of believable. The novel alternates points of view, and the story progression is non-linear. The story clearly is meant to leave readers reflecting on life, love, and our various degrees of separation.
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