Beautiful Ruins

I’m known for getting far too involved in novels. Give me a book, a free day, and I won’t even need a bookmark to save my spot for the next day. I felt this way about my most recent book, Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. No, I didn’t finish it in a day (although I wish I’d had time to). I toted it everywhere I went: the pool, babysitting, and finished it this morning on the back deck, in hopes of beating the sweltering heat expected this afternoon.

This book was a recommendation from my dad, as it was an NPR book review. By now, you’re probably well-aware of my love for NPR. I had to read it. After finishing 50 Shades of Grey, I went to the bookstore in search of Beautiful Ruins. It was right in the front, no need for further searching. Unfortunately, it’s only available in hardback as it’s relatively new.

I love novels told from different points of view, which is probably why I enjoyed this one so much. Not only is it told from different points of view, but it also jumps back and forth in time. Today, Claire is a young, frustrated script-leader living in Hollywood and working for Michael Deane Productions. Her days are consumed by the monotony of trashy reality-TV pitches and a live-in boyfriend who would rather spend his days watching porn. She considers leaving him, but stays when she becomes consumed with a project and the possibility of leaving her current job for another, more productive one.

Pasquale Tursi is a young man living in Porto Vergogna, “Port of Shame” in Italy in 1962. There, he runs his father’s hotel which he names The Hotel Adequate View. The description of the hotel’s location would lead readers to believe the view is anything but adequate- rather, extraordinary. It’s nestled in a cliff in Italy, where fishermen spend their days on their boats and all appears to be at peace.

The hotel is struggling, though. Then, a young American actress, Dee Moray, checks in to stay at the hotel. Although an extra in Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor, Moray has been sent to the hotel after a doctor diagnoses her with stomach cancer. Plagued by the “illness,” Dee spends her days holed up in her room, withering away.

Pasquale is enamored by her beauty, and mystery as an American actress. A solid language barrier exists between the two, as Pasquale struggles to translate his Italian to English. Dee is patient, and the two begin to spend more time together. It all seems well and good, until Dee is forced to leave. Pasquale, heartbroken, is forced to move on from the fantasy of a relationship with a woman he’s known for three days.

Today, an old Italian man arrives at Michael Deane Productions. He’s greeted by a flustered Claire, who’s had another awful day of pitches. The old man must see Michael Deane now; and Claire, not wanting to go home to her lazy boyfriend, agrees.

The excitement of the novel lies in how all of these stories intertwine. I’ll admit, I kind of predicted one of the stories, but was still interested to see how Jess Walters carried it out.

What I loved about this novel was how beautiful the language was. I’ve dog-eared a few quotes to share:

“All of these people moving in the way they thought right…all of these stories, all of these weak, sick people with their betrayals and their dark hearts- This is the world- swirling all around him, speaking and smoking and snapping photographs, and Pasquale felt himself turn hard, and he thought he might spend the rest of his life standing here, like the old fountain of the stranded boat.”

“The pieces of his broken life lay on the ground before him like a mirror that had always stared back, but which had now broken to reveal the life behind it.”

“But aren’t all great quests folly? El Dorado and the Fountain of Youth and the search for intelligent life in the cosmos- we know what’s out there. It’s what isn’t that truly compels us.”

“We want what we want- we love who we love.”

“Pasquo, the smaller the space between your desire and what is right, the happier you will be.”

The genius of this novel lies in its title- Beautiful Ruins.  Perhaps that’s exactly what the beaufty of  life is, just us trying to make sense of the mess we’ve made-past, present, and future.

“There would be nothing more obvious, more tangible, than the present moment. And yet it eludes us completely. All the sadness of life lies in that fact.” -Milan Kundera


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