Beautiful Ruins was our last book club read before our summer hiatus. It was also the winner of ‘Best book’ or, because we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings when we vote, ‘book we enjoyed reading most.’ (Thus, ‘worst’ book becomes ‘book we enjoyed reading least.’) It was a close race between Beautiful Ruins and The Children Act, but Walter’s fantastic novel won out in the end.
I think I am going to have a hard time articulating how I feel about this book because it hit a lot of my sweet spots. First of all, part of the novel is set in Italy and anyone who knows me knows that Italy is my dream place. I’ve been twice and often say that some day I will live there…even if it’s just for a few months. The other part of the novel takes place in Hollywood and, okay, I admit it – I love the movie stars. Just ask anyone who was around during the David Boreanaz days…or go further back…the Robby Benson days. Ask my students how often I work Ryan Gosling into the conversation.
Beautiful Ruins follows the fortunes of Pasquale Tursi in Porto Vergogna, a tiny village near the Cinque Terre region of Italy only “it was smaller, more remote and not as picturesque.”
Port Vergogna was a tight cluster of a dozen old whitewashed houses, an abandoned chapel, and the town’s only commercial interest – the tiny hotel and café owned by Pasquale’s family – all huddled like a herd of a sleeping goats in a crease in the sheer cliffs.
Pasquale has come back to Porto Vergogna to care for his dying mother and the Hotel Adequate View, and it is there he meets actress Dee Moray, who has come, by mistake, to the Adequate View to rest. She is in Italy to make Cleopatra, the notoriously bad film starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.
The title’s phony – her job’s all assisting, no developing, and she’s nobody’s chief. She tends Michael’s whims. Answers his calls and e-mails, goes for his sandwiches and coffee.
It is not the life she dreamed of when she gave up her doctoral film studies program to make movies. Now she is on the cusp of leaving her job and going to work as a curator for a private film museum.
If you’re wondering how Walter is going to dovetail these two eras, all I can say is “masterfully.” We flip back to 1960’s Italy and recent-day Hollywood and neither story (or character) gets short-shrift. In fact Claire and Pasquale aren’t the only characters who populate this story – even minor characters are fully realized including Pasquale’s elderly aunt Valeria (who provides comic relief), Shane (a screenwriter who comes to Hollywood to pitch the story of cowboy cannibals), Alvis (the failed American writer who comes to Porto Vergogna once a year to work on his novel) and even Daryl, Claire’s hunky porn-addicted boyfriend. Even Michael Deane, slimy as he is, is fun to spend time with.
And what are these Beautiful Ruins? Well, I think that’s probably the reason everyone and their dog was praising this book when it came out in 2012. This is a great story – funny and heartbreaking in equal measure – about big ideas. The people that you meet and the choices that you make are at the very center of this book. But as Alvis says to Dee, “No one gets to tell you what your life means.”
I loved this book so much.