Beautiful Ruins

Jess Walter
Harper Perennial, 2012

UnknownJess Walter has managed to show the too often dreary literary novel and the fun but clueless bestseller can overlap. Both sides have an argument that this novel doesn’t belong in either category, and they are right because the book has scattered bits of both.

The story begins when Pasquale, a young innkeeper of a remote Italian hotel named The Hotel Adequate View, watches a beautiful young American actress named Dee Moray approach his hotel by boat. He is suddenly alive with the possibilities for himself, his inn, his town, and the rest of his life. The reader is told she has cancer and has been sent from the real-life set of the 1962 filming of Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. From there a series of events through the plans and random actions of a dozen people propel the story through the next fifty years.

But to the beginning. Pasquale, overwhelmed by Moray’s timely visit and

Hollywood's 1960s  beautiful couple Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

Hollywood’s 1960s beautiful couple Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

her beauty, declares life a “blatant act of imagination.” He is sure he has conjured her presence into his life. So Walter lays his steps by drawing the reader carefully into the story with romance, possibility, intrigue, the beauty of the Italian seacoast, Hollywood history and charisma, with cancer for a dash of drama.

Then enters Alvis Bender, a wreck of a U.S. vet from World War II who retreats to the inn to write his book declaring, “death is life’s point, its profound purpose.” Ah, so literary. Except we’re at The Hotel Adequate View and along the way we’ve also met a man who has in his pocket a business card for a strip joint named the Asstacular. It was somewhere in the first hundred pages that I wondered if Walter could be compared to a Quintin Tarentino without the violence and a goofier sense of humor. He does claim to be a fan of the Cohen Brothers.

The story never approached the darkness of a grad school literary outline, but there was an insightful direction of asking the reader to consider. Consider the difference between what we desire and what is right. Consider our own shortcomings and failures before condemning another. Why do we train-wreck our own lives, where do dreams fit, and where does planning verses random acts of nature, God, and action fit?

I think it’s a dirty trick when writers loosely play with the lives of real historical figures, but the practice is widespread and the book is clearly fiction. Walter is capable of writing interesting material without rewriting history that includes actors Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, but giving the Welsh well-known womanizer an illegitimate child doesn’t hurt Beautiful Ruins. Perhaps Walter felt obligated to use Burton in his novel since it was the real-life quote by Louis Menand in The New Yorker that described Richard Burton as a beautiful ruin that gave this book its title.

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This entry was posted in A Book Stream Review, Grief's Blossoms of the Lower Branches and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Beautiful Ruins

  1. Carrie Rubin says:

    Sounds like a very interesting read. And with a fictional establishment named “Asstacular,” how can one not be intrigued? ;)

  2. “A beautiful ruin” quote about Burton. It really resonates, doesn’t it? This novel sounds promising!

  3. Amy says:

    Thank you for the wonderful review of the book, Rebecca!

  4. Thank you for the encouragement. I did enjoy the book.

  5. Funny how subjective a story might be yet I find this story intriguing. Because of your excellent review, Rebecca, I am curious and want to read yet another book I won’t get to for eons. :-D

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