Beautiful Ruins - By Jess Walter

Beautiful Ruins - By Jess Walter

Beautiful Ruins opens with its hero, Pasquale, first laying eyes on the sumptuously beautiful Dee Moray, an American actress who comes to Pasquale’s tiny Italian village by boat, borne across the Mediterranean like a Botticelli Venus. You then cut to Hollywood 40 years later, to a bored studio executive checking her Blackberry whilst lying beside her loser boyfriend, and realise that Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter’s sixth novel, may not be the sweeping love story its opening seems to promise.

You would be right. Despite the romance of the opening scene, Beautiful Ruins actually becomes a fast-moving story about celebrity, fame, love, and doing the right thing. Every romantic movie you’ve ever seen has taught you that Pasquale and Dee will end up together, and yet Walter eschews that path most travelled in favour of following these two people through their very real, non-clichéd, mistake-ridden lives.

Walter builds narrative tension by jumping from Pasquale and Dee’s first encounter in the 1960s (during which Dee has a bit part in that famous Liz Taylor flop Cleopatra), to the present-day Hollywood, where an aged Pasquale is trying to find her. These two parallel storylines are intercut with excerpts from other fictional texts, like the first chapter of an autobiographical novel written by one of the secondary characters and a movie pitch from an over-eager, over-confident writer.

But amidst all this artful jumping backward and forward in time, and from story to text to story, Walter still manages to anchor his complex plot around very real characters who deal with difficult dilemmas in relatable ways. Despite my initial scepticism and misgivings about the first few Hollywood scenes (the lives of the glossy Hollywood set have never much interested me), I found myself falling for this book. And how could you not, when Beautiful Ruins proves to be a genuine page-turner, with its unexpected-yet-realistic plot developments, beautifully well-written, and filled with so much heart?

What appealed to me the most was that Beautiful Ruins bears out something that one of the secondary characters says: “stories are people. I’m a story; you’re a story.” Walter treats every character as if this is absolutely true. All the characters feel real, because they each have their own story and own lives. But no one’s story turns out quite the way you expect; in every case, their life turns out to be just like your life – a shambles, and beautiful because of it. All this makes Beautiful Ruins a warm, generous, surprising, funny and engaging book.
This article first appeared in Issue 26, 2013.
Posted 4:26pm Sunday 6th October 2013 by Feby Idrus.