Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter

This book was an unexpected pleasure. It’s gotten a lot of buzz in the book world, but somehow I’d missed all that and just saw it on the “New” shelf at the bookstore, flipped through it and thought I’d give it a try. (Note to fellow writers BTW: THIS is why everyone wants to be published with a big press. Not because your small indie publisher, or mine, is not wonderful or that they don’t do the best they can for your book, but because it’s virtually always the big publishers who have the pull to place books in locations where people will randomly see the book, pick it up and make an impulse decision to buy it).

Beautiful Ruins starts in 1962 in a remote Italian village, where a young man who dreams of making his family’s rundown hotel into a tourist mecca meets a young American movie actress who has been sent to the island in the midst of filming the Hollywood blockbuster Cleopatra. The actress, Dee Moray, is apparently ill; the young hotelier, Pasquale, falls immediately and hopelessly in love with her.

Flash forward to present-day Hollywood, where an aging Pasquale finds and confronts the movie producer he met in Rome in 1962, hoping to finish some unfinished business. The story jumps around between Pasquale’s flashback story of his first meeting with Dee (in which Richard Burton plays a not-incidental role), the present-day machinations of the Hollywood movie business, and the lives and aspirations of several other characters who are all tangentially connected either to Pasquale, to Dee, or to the utterly unscrupulous movie producer Michael Deane. It’s high-energy, often sarcastic and funny but also surprisingly moving in places. It’s all beautifully written and fitted together until the last chapter, which completely fell apart for me — I sort of understood what Jess Walter was trying to accomplish with the ending but for me as a reader it didn’t work. However, I loved the book so much I just mentally deleted the last chapter and created my own ending, and then everything was OK.

I still highly recommend this book — you might even like the ending more than I did. You don’t have to be fascinated with Hollywood, movie-making and Richard Burton to love this book (though if you are, you almost certainly will) — I’m not normally fascinated by any of those things and I still found it completely absorbing.

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