The Italian Riviera in the 1960s is the backdrop for this story. A breathless American actor graces the shores of a forgotten town. This and much more fill the pages of Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, a novel about long-lost love, the corrupted world of movie stars and the ethereal quality of Italy.
The book begins with the tale of Pasquale, an Italian man born and raised in the small fishing village of Porto Vergogna. He owns a small hotel on the rocky shores and barely gets any patrons until one April morning when Dee Moray, an American actor with a stunning profile, happens to arrive by motorboat. Her unique looks aren't the only special quality about her. The actor is supposedly dying of stomach cancer and has come to escape the hectic pace of Rome, the famed city where Cleopatra is being filmed.
The novel continuously switches between Italy in the past (1960s) and present-day California. Cutting to Los Angeles around 2012, Walter goes on to introduce Michael Deane, a legendary movie producer with ample money and Botox injections to his name; Claire Silver, the adroit assistant of Deane; and Shane Wheeler, a rundown wanna-be with Hollywood aspirations. All the events mesh together around the life of Dee Moray, with the now aged Pasquale coming to Hollywood to settle old scores with Deane, who double-crossed Moray, and finding his elusive love from the '60s.
Filled with travel stories, beautifully described scenery and poignant scenes that are so sharp and descriptive they could cut the eye, this novel is a must-read. Although the chapters of the book containing the current-day dialogue are somewhat lackluster (i.e. the many "burnout characters" like Pat and Daryl got repetitive after a while), the descriptions of a deserted Italian shoreline and Florence after World War II make up for the modern garbage.
A character not to be missed is definitely Alvis Bender, the veteran who journeys to Pasquale's humble inn every year to continuously write and rewrite the first chapter of his war novel. Dragging the reader back to a World War II-ravaged Italy and a brief rendezvous with a brazen woman trying to avoid being raped, Bender describes his hardships in an almost desperate, Hemingway-like tone.
In fact, the whole novel is full of juxtaposing imagery (i.e. brutal scenes of the war contrasted with the glitzy world of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Rome).
Although the writing is sometimes confusing — it seems like 10 different stories are being spun and crazily intertwined simultaneously — the ending sews up loose ends, leaving no messy frays behind.
Overall, if one is enamored with the Mediterranean culture, 50-year-long romances that entertain the mind and senses, and the idea that even the most wayward people can tread the right path again, then add this book to your reading list now. Even better, the book is a quick read (337 pages) that won't take ages to get through.