Beautiful Ruins

In My Book Club Books on August 23, 2015 at 6:19 am

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by Jess Walter


Book Description (Courtesy of Goodreads):

The story begins in 1962. On a rocky patch of the sun-drenched Italian coastline, a young innkeeper, chest-deep in daydreams, looks out over the incandescent waters of the Ligurian Sea and spies an apparition: a tall, thin woman, a vision in white, approaching him on a boat. She is an actress, he soon learns, an American starlet, and she is dying.

And the story begins again today, half a world away, when an elderly Italian man shows up on a movie studio’s back lot—searching for the mysterious woman he last saw at his hotel decades earlier.

What unfolds is a dazzling, yet deeply human, roller coaster of a novel, spanning fifty years and nearly as many lives. From the lavish set of Cleopatra to the shabby revelry of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Walter introduces us to the tangled lives of a dozen unforgettable characters: the starstruck Italian innkeeper and his long-lost love; the heroically preserved producer who once brought them together and his idealistic young assistant; the army veteran turned fledgling novelist and the rakish Richard Burton himself, whose appetites set the whole story in motion—along with the husbands and wives, lovers and dreamers, superstars and losers, who populate their world in the decades that follow.

Gloriously inventive, constantly surprising, Beautiful Ruins is a story of flawed yet fascinating people, navigating the rocky shores of their lives while clinging to their improbable dreams.

My Thoughts:

This should make for quite the book club discussion! I thought the writing was masterful and found myself stopping to reread many sentences throughout the book. I also appreciated the multi-faceted cast of main and secondary characters, all damaged in some way, and all, I think, trying to come to terms with their mistakes. While I liked some more than others, I was fascinated by them all and how the author connected them all with stories-within-a-story. It was that “stories-within-stories” itself that kept me truly engaged – that sweeping plot that covered two continents and spanned over fifty years (which the author described in the book’s epilogue as “a multi-generational, multi-genre, multi-point-of-view book about 1960s Italy, present-day Hollywood, World War II, and the Donner Party). I was intrigued with the author’s unique narrative style and devices with some chapters told in third person and some in first person, another chapter that was a screen play, another that was an excerpt from a book, and all jumping from one decade to another. Somehow it all worked, and it all tied together, producing a book layered with story upon story, each one helping to tell the other, all the while weaving in witty cultural commentary on such diverse topics as globalization, sexism and fame.I don’t think I have ever read anything like it. It is, in essence, a simple story, with no great villains or excitement. It’s pretty much just about love and about people, the choices we make and what happens after those choices are made. For all intents and purposes, it is a quick, easy read, but it has some amazing depth to it. All in all, a very worthwhile read.

My Rating: 4/5

My Favorite Quotes:

“Then she smiled, and in that instant, if such a thing were possible, Pasquale fell in love, and he would remain in love for the rest of his life–not so much with the woman, whom he didn’t even know, but with the moment.” (p. 8)

“For twenty minutes, Shane has been coaxing an outfit from this autumn leaf pile of discarded clothes: wrinkly polos, quirky secondhand Ts, faux Western button shirts, boot-cut jeans, skin jeans, torn jeans, slacks, khakis, and cords, none of it quite right for the too-talented-to-care nonchalance he imagines is appropriate for his first-ever hollywood pitch meeting.” (p. 19)

“Richard Burton had removed his sunglasses and given a wry smile. He was about Pasquale’s height, with thick sideburns, tousled brown hair, and a cleft chin. he had the sharpest features Pasquale had ever seen, as if his face had been sculpted in separate pieces and then assembled on-site.” (p173)

The Literary Epicurean Book Club Discussion

As I predicted, this book made for a very lively discussion. One member started by referring to one of the special sections that followed the story – “In the Time of Galley Slaves” which gave the author’s insight into the writing of the book. Truly a fascinating piece that should not be missed.

We went on to talk about the themes. One member commented that redemption was certainly one, with each character trying to redeem himself. Another added that Pasqual’s mother’s quote “Sometimes what we want to do and what we must do are not the same. Pasquo, the smaller the space between your desire and what is right, the happier you will be.” , as well as Michael Deane’s quote, “We want what we want—we love who we love.”  are wrapped up in it as well.

We all agreed the writing was very clever – the writing within the writing, how complicated the plot is with its two different plot lines and huge list of characters, as well as the jumping back and forth in time. We were hooked from the first sentence – an exceptional bit of writing in itself. One member commented that the author had tremendous insight and the ability to synthesize complex ideas (“..Perhaps it was the difference in age between the countries – America withs its expansive youth, building all those drive-in movies theaters and cowboy restaurants; Italians living in endless contraction in the artifacts of generations, in the bones of empires.”) We also appreciated how he tied up everything at the end, though at least one of us felt it was a bit rushed. Still, we liked knowing what happened to everyone.

Then there were the characters! It was interesting to note how our perceptions and feelings about Dee and Michael changed over the course of the book. None of us liked Michael at first (he was so diametrically opposed to Pasqual in terms of philosophy), but, as one member noted, we did appreciate his talent to read people. All of the characters were fictional, except for Richard Burton. One member felt that his appearance just didn’t work for her. As we explored that thought, one member brought up the point that since he was so well known that made the reader care more about Dee and her son. Then, of course, there was Dick Cavett’s comment that Richard Burton was “a beautiful ruin”.

We talked about the title, with its double meaning. It could refer to the village itself, as well as to the collection of characters, some more damaged than others. We talked about the name of the hotel (Adequate View) and the whole tennis court on the cliff bit. There were so many memorable parts

All in all, we very much enjoyed this book with its compelling plot and interesting characters. It was engaging and highly entertaining. We are hoping they make it into a movie…perhaps with Adrian Grenier as Pasqual suggests one member…


Book Club Rating: 4+/5

Book Club Menu




Beef and Cheese Manicotti


Cold Zabaglione with Strawberries


Recommended by NPR

Author Interview

Should your book club read Beautiful Ruins?

Tosa Book Club Discussion Questions

Book Club Discussion Questions


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