Sunday, March 24, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter is an odd book, or at least an odd choice for me, but a very engaging one. It begins with the unlikely scene of a young Italian hotel owner, Pasquale Tursi, trying to build a beach along the rocky coastline of his remote, nearly inaccessible fishing village by throwing rocks into the sea. He needs a beach if he’s ever going to attract tourists to the hotel– The Hotel Adequate View – that he recently inherited from his father. They don’t get many guests, but, on this particular day, a boat puts into the harbor carrying a beautiful young American actress, Dee Moray.

It is 1962, and Dee Moray has been in Rome working on the film Cleopatra with Liz Taylor and Richard Burton. But--she was diagnosed with cancer. Now she has come to this remote location to decide what to do next. The film’s publicity agent/problem fixer, Michael Deane, has sent her here to rest until she’s ready to go to Switzerland for treatment. But Dee isn’t sure she wants to fight; her mother died of breast cancer and the therapy was no help.

Pasquale’s English is just so-so and Dee’s Italian is even worse, but they are able to make themselves understood. It only takes a short while for the smitten Pasquale to realize that Dee is waiting for a man to come meet her, and it doesn’t take much longer for Pasquale to come to the conclusion that the man is not going to come. Pasquale goes off to Rome to make this right, setting in motion a chain of events that lead the good-hearted innkeeper to reevaluate the things he’s done and plans to do with his own life.

The book jumps back and forth from Dee and Pasquale’s earlier life to roughly the present. Michael Deane is a famed Hollywood producer now, but after an enormously successful movie-making career, he has been side-tracked to reality TV. He doesn’t mind so much—money is money—but his intense young assistant, Claire Silver, is appalled by the drek they are turning out. She wants to make meaningful, artful movies. Working for Michael Deane should be a dream job but it’s a nightmare, until an elderly Italian man shows up at the studio one afternoon, looking for an actress from the sixties named Dee Moray.

This book weaves its plot around the lives of several messed up people, exquisitely characterized for us– some very likeable, some who are OK in small doses but they’d wear on you in real life, and one who is an unredeemable jerk. The plotting is larger than life (Richard Burton is a character?) and yet, it all somehow comes together believably. There are moments that were beautifully touching. And there are scenes that made me laugh.

I can’t remember where I saw the recommendation for this one. I put myself on the library waiting list and it took awhile to get the book. To be honest, a couple of chapters in, I considered giving up on it and moving on to something more my usual fare. It starts out a little messily scattered and I didn’t see where it was going. But I’m so glad I stuck with it because the characters reached in and grabbed me. Pasquale is a protagonist I’ll remember for a long time.

The library challenge is hosted by Book Dragon's Lair.