Jess Walter is a new author for me. Beautiful Ruins is his sixth novel and was named one of the 100 Notable Books for 2012 by the New York Times Book Review. It’s an unusual book with a twisting plot that moves from the 1960s to the present day again and again without being confusing.
The action takes place on the rocky Mediterranean coastline of Italy’s Cinque Terre region, Hollywood, Seattle and rural Idaho. There are some characters who were real people but are used fictitiously here, and there is an interesting parade of fictitious characters.
From the moment it opens in the tiny Italian village of Porto Vergogna in 1962 when a daydreaming young innkeeper looks out over the water and spies a mysterious woman approaching on a boat — the only way to arrive in this village — the novel is a roller coaster of a story.
Would you believe Richard Burton is one of the main characters? Yes, THAT Richard Burton.
One of the quotations used in the front of the book is telling: (Dick) Cavett’s four great interviews with Richard Burton were done in 1980… Burton, 54 at the time, and already a beautiful ruin, was mesmerizing.
Liz Taylor is only on the fringes of the action, but a young aspiring actress, Dee Moray, is at the center of the story, along with the young Italian innkeeper, a World War II veteran struggling to become a writer, an up-and-coming producer who rises rapaciously to the heights of the film industry and scores of other flawed individuals. I liked the way this book entertains; it’s tragic, humorous and so very real while at the same time teetering on the edge of the possible and the unbelievable.
It’s a surprising and entertaining read from a writer who must surely have a very creative mind. Esquire magazine calls Beautiful Ruins the book of the year, and there are numerous other stunning endorsements.
Jess Walter lives in Spokane, Wash., and is the author of The Financial Lives of the Poets, and the National Book Award finalist, The Zero. His collection of short fiction, We Live in Water, was recently published by Harper Perennial.