Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins (Harper, $25.99) opens on the shores of a quiet 1962 Cinque Terre fishing village, where we meet Dee Moray, a beautiful (fictional) American movie starlet fresh from the extravagant movie set of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s Cleopatra. Her arrival is hailed by a local as “a burst of clarity from a lifetime of sleep,” a catalyst that sparks the whole tangled cast of characters into action.
We follow these characters—Italian hotel attendants, Hollywood power players, a shell-shocked American writer, and a washed-up rock star named Pat—through 40 years, as the effects of their decisions ripple though the lives of those around them. Pat is an idiot, but lovably so, with an unfortunate predisposition toward misadventure. his girlfriend is irritatingly altruistic in her attempts to save those around them from drowning in Pat’s wake. a young hotel proprietor is perfectly Italian, driven by the pursuit of honor and beauty. Walter’s Richard Burton would seem dangerously cartoonish if his drunken foibles weren’t so spot-on. and Walter maintains a similar delicate balance with his villainous Michael Dean, a fictitious Hollywood executive with a decades-long appetite for money, success, and plastic surgery.
Ruins connects these lives through multiple substories, sometimes written by the characters themselves. these little tidbits masterfully illustrate the motives behind characters’ actions and they fit within a perfectly executed framework, jumping from era to era to keep readers’ emotions on hold for the next scene in the book. This nonlinear mechanism runs the risk of being schizophrenic, a potential warren of diverging and unusable rooms and branches. Instead, Walter tells his story elegantly, the intertwined time lines giving credence and depth to the characters.
Walter’s words are precise brushstrokes, echoing the appropriate rhythm of each location: the isolated Italian village where “feral cats poked around the piazza”; cutthroat Hollywood in the early morning hours, “before Benzes and BMWs nose onto palmed streets and the blue-toothed sharks resume their endless business.” Walter transports his readers into swanky post–World’s Fair Seattle for mai tais at the now-defunct Trader Jim’s, and then nestles down into the comforting predictability of small-town America.
In the beginning of Ruins, the young hotel proprietor stands chest-deep in seawater on the shores of Cinque Terre, “tossing rocks the size of cats” and trying desperately to be taken seriously. his actions—and those of all the people in this book—are serious by virtue of their human qualities. Beautiful Ruins is satisfying and delicate, a spectacular story of love, frustration, selfish intent, and the patience of the human heart.