The first thing that caught my attention with “Beautiful Ruins” by Jess Walter was its beautiful cover, a retro, or shall we say “Instagram-style” picture of the Cinque Terre coast line.
So, I turned the book over to read the nut graph, which honestly didn’t intrigue me that much, it sounded a bit like a run-of-the-mill love story.
In 1962, a young and handsome Italian inn keeper dreams of turning his family’s little hotel into a tourist destination. A young and beautiful American actress arrives at his hotel, supposedly because she is dying and needs a place to rest. The two feel an instant connection, and share their dreams and aspirations despite language barriers and their very different life paths.
But, I grabbed the book anyway, and was hooked the moment I started reading. Walter’s characters are vivid, they have depth, make you cringe or root for them.
Reading on, it turns out, the young actress is not dying at all – and her “condition” is very much connected to Richard Burton, who is in Rome filming “Cleopatra” with Liz Taylor.
The story then spins back and forth between the lives of several main characters – putting us back in touch with them at different points in time, and telling us what has become of them.
I especially loved the chapters involving the actress’ son, who we get to meet when he is in his thirties. Pat Bender is a somewhat successful musician with a serious drug problem, and an eternal loser when it comes to relationships and following through.
Having spent only a tiny bit of time in Hollywood, I also enjoyed the character of Michael Deane, an aging movie producer who has had too much plastic surgery, and now produces scandalous reality TV shows.
This is not just a great summer read, this book will keep you thinking about its characters, and have you wondering what might have happened to them.
Jess Walter is the author of the national bestseller The Financial Lives of the Poets.