I came upon Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins when I was something of a ruin myself. In two short years, I’d been treated for cancer, left my husband, patched things up, and just as life was veering back towards Normalville, it took a headlong swerve: my dad was diagnosed with a life-threatening disease and needed surgery the following day. I booked a red-eye, packed, and stayed for five weeks. When finally I returned home, I felt flattened and couldn’t focus enough to read more than The Daily Puppy. As a lifelong reader this was tragedy anew. Words and sentences, which used to engage me, now felt lifeless and dull. No story held my interest—too trivial, too banal, too expected. Who cares? My readerly self died. Code blue.
After weeks of picking up books and setting them down, I grew desperate—this might never end. Sheepishly, I asked some writer friends if they could recommend a “good read,” but one that was well-written and even—dare I ask?—funny. Enter Beautiful Ruins. I checked out a copy from the library, couldn’t get past page ten, and set it aside. Then Jess Walter himself appeared at my door. Well, not my actual door, but at a reading event at my favorite independent bookstore. He was hawking the paperback version of Beautiful Ruins.
In person, Jess Walter is funny and charming, so I bought the book, had it signed, and sat down to read. The opening still didn’t sing to me but I pushed on, dammit, and made it through chapter one. The second chapter was better. And I was off.
Beautiful Ruins is a sprawling romp of a book, covering two continents, five decades, and a road trip from Rome to the Cinque Terre in an Alfa driven by a drunken Richard Burton. (Yes, that Richard Burton.) It started as the perfect escape: beautiful scenery, surprising turns, and at the novel’s heart was a love story. The book’s engaging, funny, and the sentences are strong. But the characters kept me reading. They’re the driving force. They are flawed, complex, and striving for something they’ll never achieve. They won’t even come close. In 1962, a young Italian, Pasquale Tursi, wants to build a beach on the rocky shore in front of his inn, The Hotel Adequate View. He dreams that his tiny village can expand the region into the Sei Terre. Meanwhile, Dee Moray, an aspiring yet ailing American actress, waits for the man she loves to come rescue her from that same inn. Forty years later in Hollywood, legendary film producer Michael Deane wants to regain his fame and power. His Chief Development Assistant, Claire Silver, wants to find one great pitch or else ditch her career. These characters want and want. They have outsized dreams. What happens when we have more ambition than talent? What if our dreams have no basis in fact? What if the beautiful actress, upon closer inspection, is not quite as beautiful as one first thought, and from certain angles is merely passable? The characters are imperfect, yet they carry on, chasing their dreams, past mockery, and long past the point when most sensible people would have given up. I felt buoyed by their boundless optimism. Could people really live this way? Could I?
Walter throws everything into the book, even texts written by his characters. Not only does Shann Wheeler pitch his screenplay for Donner! (about cannibalism and the failed Donner party), we get the screenplay too. Alvis Bender contributes the first chapter of his WWII novel, a chapter he writes over and over, never moving forward. There’s the beginning of the memoir written by Michael Deane. Well, the draft that got rejected. There were no rules, anything goes, which was freeing and fun. Beautiful Ruins is contemporary and edgy, yet at points, also oddly reminiscent of some throw-back time. It’s like nothing I’d ever read. It’s too much, too large, like a 4-month-old Labrador retriever, with too-long legs that cause him to stumble as he runs, yet he stays standing. As I watched Walter take such massive risks, the distant, deadened writer in me began to wake up: how would he make this work?
Despite the characters’ failings (and there are some doozies) there’s an overriding sense of hope. In the end all the characters have are their daily lives, imperfect and small, and they learn to savor the fleeting moments while they have them. After staring down scary illnesses, my father’s and mine, this was a lesson I needed to learn (again).
The paperback version of Beautiful Ruins contains a couple bonus features, including an essay where Walter describes his 15-year journey writing this book. Yes, even the author strived against the odds and managed to pull this off.
We all want a happy ending but after reading this book I didn’t immediately find one. I left my husband again and this time divorced. I needed another surgery. A friend died. Then my mom called to say she’d been given a serious diagnosis and would have surgery in two days. I booked another red-eye. When I packed, I searched my shelf and plucked just one novel. Again, each day was spent at the hospital, but at night I sat in the twin bed in my brother’s old room, absorbed in this book. This time, Beautiful Ruins kept my readerly self alive—my literary IV drip.