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Beautiful Ruins

Jess Walter

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Jul 20, 2016
Category: Fiction

I hadn’t read a word by Jess Walter until this, but his books are consistently honored: Time Magazine’s #2 novel of the year, finalist for the National Book Award, winner of the LA Times Book Prize, winner of the Edgar Allan Poe Award for best novel, New York Times notable book. Born in Spokane, he lives in Spokane. And yet he’s written a novel set largely in Italy — the wisest, worldliest novel I’ve read in years.

What’s it about? Italy in the 1960s, Hollywood in the 1960s, Hollywood now, World War II, the set of “Cleopatra,” the Donner party, Seattle, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Idaho — but this long list is scaring you, yes?

If the locations aren’t daunting, the massive cast might make you nervous. The proprietor of “The Hotel Adequate View,” a six-room, three-table nothing of a resort in an Italian coastal town only accessible by boat. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. A Hollywood publicist turned producer. A novelist who can’t get beyond the first chapter. An unproduced screenwriter. A singer-comic. An assistant film executive whose boyfriend can be found at strip clubs. And — I almost forgot — the woman who seems to be at the center of all this, a young American actress named Dee Moray, who was briefly in "Cleopatra" and has come to this nowhere hotel because she’s been told she’s dying of cancer.

It starts simply enough:

The dying actress arrived in his village the only way one could come directly — in a boat that motored into the cove, lurched past the rock jetty, and bumped against the end of the pier. She wavered a moment in the boat’s stern, then extended a slender hand to grip the mahogany railing; with the other, she pressed a wide-brimmed hat against her head. All around her, shards of sunlight broke on the flickering waves.

This novel was 15 years in the making, many drafts. And in the end, not a foolish move. Try it: read an excerpt. [To buy the paperback book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

“Beautiful Ruins” is, by turns, funny, tragic, satirical. Like life, it is always surprising. Like life, it has threads that connect unlikely people — but only in retrospect. Like life, victories are hard-won, defeats are learning experiences. And better than life, it all makes sense in the end.

I won’t quote it; it’s too hard to isolate what’s great about this novel. Because it all is. Every sentence. I know: That’s crazy talk. But “Beautiful Ruins” is one of those reading experiences that delights and challenges you along the way, thrills you often, and, at the end, makes you cry — well, makes me cry — for a world glorious enough for these characters and this writer.