by Jess Walter
Jess Walter’s novels have tackled political confusion, in Citizen Vince; post-9/11 paranoia, in The Zero; and the personal aftermath of the financial crisis, in The Financial Lives of the Poets, all with a rooted, journalistic feel. But his latest success, Beautiful Ruins, is deliberately timeless, encompassing over half a century of painful love, depraved Hollywood scheming, and everyone’s attempt to live the lives they picture themselves having.
The book begins in 1962, when actress Dee Moray leaves the Roman set of Cleopatra on a medical retreat to Pasquale Tursi’s obscure hotel in a tourist-free Italian village. Then, hop-skipping across decades and continents, Walter introduces a host of characters whose stories intersect with Pasquale’s attempt to reunite with Dee, whom he hasn’t forgotten after 50 years apart.
Beautiful Ruins moves effort-lessly, with pacey dialogue and highly entertaining excerpts from fictional plays, autobiographies and novels, while steadily revealing what’s happened to the characters between broad shifts in time and location. As their stories unfold, they find themselves struggling with the same dilemma Dee faces: “’People sit around for years waiting for their lives to begin… I felt… as if I was a character in a movie and the real action was about to start at any minute.’” It’s a theme that injects each story with heart-breaking melancholy.
Walter’s comedic talent shows in the foul-mouthed dialogue he gives to Pasquale’s nasty aunt; in the hilariously absurd Hollywood productions that make a name for his excellent villain, Michael Deane; and in an account of Pasquale’s day and night with a drunk Richard Burton. His straightforward, casual style carries the stories along, though it proves to lack some power when Walter takes on the ambitious task of neatly wrapping up nearly every minor character’s tale. Unlike The Financial Lives of the Poets, with its intelligent, graceful finale, the end of Beautiful Ruins feels like a montage-style epilogue for a rom-com bordering on kitsch.
But it’s the theme of self-perception that makes the book work. For all its moodiness, the book is ultimately uplifting: characters who despair when pondering the significance of their biographies end up having them framed in ways that capture the beauty of their own messed-up, imperfect lives.