Beautiful Ruins – Jess Walter

Each and every summer the press always give us lists of the books that will be the perfect beach read. One which kept coming up time and time again, and had the most striking cover, was Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, deemed as this summer’s ‘literary’ beach read. This put it on my list of books I must read along with all the acclaim it had received in America. It was however ABC’s The Book Club over in Australia that finally gave me the push to read it when they announced it as one of their titles for October and so I decided I would read it whilst having some delusions of grandeur that I was technically reading along with Jason Steger, Jennifer Byrne and Marieke Hardy.

Penguin Books, 2013, paperback, fiction, 337 pages, kindly sent by publisher

It is initially another quiet summer in the life of Pasquale Tursi, the owner of a floundering Italian coastal hotel with big dreams called The Hotel Adequate View, until the arrival of an actress as his latest guest. This actress Dee Moray has been sent away from the set of Cleopatra, which is filming over the waters, by one of its producers and is under the impression she is terminally ill. Her arrival changes things for Pasquale who has been too long stuck with his widowed mother and batty battle axe of an aunt.

We then switch to the (roughly) present day and Hollywood, where life is fast, furious and pretty materialistic and forgetful. Claire Silver is assistant to one of LA’s biggest producers, Michael Dean, having always wanted to produce her own shows this should be a dream but she is bored and stuck in a rut both work wise and personally. However on what looks to be another dull day of dreadful pitches, with the likes of struggling writer Shane, when an Italian elderly man called Pasquale turns up looking for her boss. As we find out why, Walter strings all the stories together and unfinished events unfold.

Beautiful Ruins is an interesting book in part because it has so much to say, almost too much. If the setting of filming Cleopatra and all the gossip and commotion from the set, possible love story at the hotel and how it all links into modern day, we also end up following many, many, many sub characters and plots that take us as far as a community theatre in Idaho to Edinburgh festival.

Unfortunately this subsequently stretches the book and its main story to capacity and the tale of Pasquale and Dee is the heart of the book and yet I didn’t feel the book concentrated them enough. For example I could easily have done away with the link to modern Hollywood where Michael Deane might initially create a few laughs (his amazing show ‘Hookbook’ for one) but soon a much darker side appears that I really disliked, and not in a good way. Also any laughter from/at Michael is swiftly killed every time Claire appears. Her misery with her pretty fantastic job and gorgeous boyfriend mixed with her one dimensional character make her feel like a part of the set used just for the sake of adding an occasional twist (Shane is also equally one dimensional) which is a shame as Walter’s can write characters brilliantly.

The first impression one gets of Michael Deane is of a man constructed of wax, or perhaps prematurely embalmed. After all these years, it may be impossible to trace the sequence of facials, spa treatments, mud baths, cosmetic procedures, lifts and staples, collagen implants, outpatient touch ups, tannings, Botox injections, cyst and growth removals, and stem-cell injections that have caused a seventy-two-year-old man to have the face of a nine-year-old Filipino girl.

It is in Italy where the book really comes alive with all the heady atmosphere of a summer on the coast, the almost deserted villages wonderful quirky inhabitants and the glamour and fascination of everything on the set of Cleopatra, I adored all of it. This sadly meant that when we switched to the modern section I would find myself inwardly groaning and looking at how many pages I had to read through before I got to the good bit again. If we had stayed in Italy for most of the book and switched to America in the final quarter (or maybe less) for the purposes of the storyline I would have been so much happier and enjoyed the book so much more.

“Leave before this place kills you like it killed your father.”
“I would never leave you.”
“Don’t worry about me. I will die soon enough and go to your father and poor brothers.”
“You’re not dying,” Pasquale said.
“I am already dead inside,” she said. “You should push me out into the sea and drown me like that old sick cat of yours.”
Pasquale straightened. “You said my cat ran away. While I was at University.”
She shot him a glance from the corner of her eye. “It is a saying.”
“No. It’s not a saying. There is no such saying such as that. Did you and Papa drown my cat while I was in Florence?.”
“I’m sick, Pasqo! Why do you torment me?”

There are some fabulous set pieces in Beautiful Ruins along with some truly wonderful characters. Walter does some very interesting things in terms of the text too. We have the two stories in the different times coming together yet we also get snippets of Shanes film pitch, an unpublished chapter of Michael’s autobiography and the first chapter of a book written by a guest whilst at Pasquale’s hotel. Sadly, for me, these additional ‘forms of media’, whilst interesting like all the additional storylines, detracted from the main heart and soul of the book. I also didn’t really like how everything finished up, though I will say the last chapter of the book is one of the best, and most clever, pieces of writing and executed stunningly. Which made it all the more frustrating because when Walter is good he is amazing. I just wish all the book had been like that, oh and that it had all been about the Italy storyline really, that could have been one of my reads of the year.

19 Comments

Filed under Jess Walter, Penguin Books, Review

19 responses to “Beautiful Ruins – Jess Walter

  1. I’ve bought this (love the cover), but not read it yet (as always). I didn’t realise Jess is a man, I’d thought it was short for Jessica! I think, from yours and other reviews I’ve seen, that I’ll enjoy it when I read it.

    • It has some brilliant escapist parts, I just wish the whole book had been set in Italy. What is great about that book, and also a nightmare for reviewing, is that it has such a big scope you miss loads of the story and subplots out so you can’t spoil it for anyone. Phew!

  2. Louise Trolle

    I really enjoyed the audiobook – I ended up giving it 4 stars. Although I agree that Claire doesn’t quite work as a character, the main story really touched me, and I love listening to Edoardo Ballerini narrate!

  3. Can we talk about how much better this cover is than the US version? I’m pretty sure that 90% of the reason I still haven’t read this book is because of the cover. Though I’ve read the blurbs, reviews and raves, somewhere in the back of my brain I’m still convinced it’s a cheesy Tuscan romance novel. Had I seen that amazingly poppy retro version first, I would have been sold.

    • We can Shannon, we can! Ha! I have to say I completely agree with you, if the book had had the American cover I wouldn’t have read it, but then maybe that wouldn’t have been such a bad thing – no, that is too harsh. It does have some serious cheese in it, it also has some very moving funny moments too – just slightly at a distance as so much is going on.

  4. Ruthiella

    I liked the book more than you did, Simon. Four stars from me too. But I agree the Italian storyline is the best.

  5. I too loved the book more than you did, Simon, and gave it four stars. I do however agree that there were too many story lines. I think this is a current fashion which is difficult for writers to ignore.

    • Mine would have been three stars, in fact I think it was on GoodReads but I hasten to add 3/5 is not bad at all. I just think there was a better book in there somewhere between all the busyness and that frustrated me somewhat.

  6. I love the US cover, but hadn’t seen this one before. It’s really different! I loved the book – it was one of the best audio narrations I’ve heard and I highly recommend it.

  7. Geraldine

    Read it following the hype but can’t say I enjoyed it.

  8. I couldn’t agree with your review more.

    I purposefully took this one on vacation this summer as I thought it would be the perfect relaxing-in-the-sun read. It left me feeling a bit blah though. As you said, the Italian parts were great but the others came up a bit short, at least in comparison.

    • That is always a danger though with books which alternate, the author has to really create each tale as vividly as the other so the reader loves both but in many books one will fall short of another. Though I always find it when you love one half then in the second part of the book you switch.

  9. Not that I take pleasure in reading a bad review but this book has gotten so much review worship that I thought it was one of those cases of me being a ‘bad’ reader. Your review echoed my thoughts exactly. The potential was there but it felt like a Hollywood pitch meeting to me, where the writers just kept throwing more stuff in. The lead ended up buried.

    • I like the apt analogy there Catherine. I didn’t hate it by any stretch, I just didn’t love it or see all the fuss. The Italy stuff is wonderful. I just wish I had read a whole book of just that.

  10. David

    I’ve had this one on the tbr pile for over a year (yup, I liked the US cover…) but still haven’t got around to it. I have however started reading Walter’s latest book, the short story collection ‘We Live in Water’, and it’s really quite good. However, the stories I’ve read so far have all been set in and around Spokane, Washington and feature very working class characters, and I think a lot of the strength of the stories derives from that, so I’ll be interested to read ‘Beautiful Ruins’ at some point as it sounds like a VERY different milieu.

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