It took recommendations from different people over a long period of time but several months late I finally got around to Jess Walter’s 2012 novel, Beautiful Ruins.
Hard to recall a book I’ve enjoyed as much in the last half year.
With a book buying budget teetering on the brink of calamity, I opted for the local library but discovered the book was on reserve—good sign for one published over two years ago. The paperback came out in April of this year, so finding a copy on store shelves shouldn’t be hard. And of course, there’s always Amazon who can get an inexpensive copy to readers anywhere in a week or two.
Author, Jess Walter lives in his hometown of Spokane, Washington with his wife and three children. His most recent book is a collection of short stories titled, We Live in Water: Stories. He has written six novels as well as two non-fiction books. His novel Citizen Vince won the Edgar Allan Poe Award in 2006, The Zero was a National Book Award finalist and Beautiful Ruins was included in the New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2012. HIs books have been translated into twenty-eight languages.
Beautiful Ruins brings a story that jumps here and there across fifty years from Italy to Hollywood, on to Seattle, London and places far and in-between. It begins with the arrival of a striking young woman in a tiny village on the coast of Italy. While filming the epic movie Cleopatra in 1962 Richard Burton “trifles” with the beautiful young bit-part actress who is later bundled off the set with a story that she is dying of stomach cancer, her symptoms very like those of early pregnancy. None the wiser, she is taken to a tiny village on the coast of Italy where she meets a young Italian named Pasquale. From there we follow a boldly entertaining cast of characters across fifty years to a little theater in present day Idaho.
For all its color, its richness of character and bravura storytelling, Beautiful Ruins is at heart a novel of social criticism offering the reader much more than mere superficial entertainment. Each of the writer’s characters shows us another side of what it is to dream, to lie, to take advantage, fail and then ultimately understand what we are. Two of Walter’s central characters—the actress and the young Italian, Pasquale—are set apart in their goodness and honesty, but are forced to find their way through a world of others serving only themselves, feeding their own misguided selfishness.
From here forward this reader’s eyes and ears will be tuned to anything by Jess Walter.