Jess Walter’s new novel, Beautiful Ruins, is wonderful. What seems at first to be a story moving back and forth between 1962 Italy and present day Hollywood slowly telescopes outward, encompassing more and more characters whose lives intersect with the central story, often in unexpected ways. At its core, this is the story of an American actress, an Italian innkeeper, and a summer they shared. Jess Walter takes that short summer friendship and elaborates it into a saga that weaves together the overlapping stories of the many lives of seemingly everyone affected by its chance occurrence.
Pasquale Tursi returns home to Porto Vergogna from Florence following the unexpected death of his father. He wants to put his family’s sleepy hotel on the map. So he’s building a beach. Maybe a tennis court. A beautiful and mysterious American actress arrives to stay at his hotel to convalesce. Her name is Dee Moray, and she has just learned she has stomach cancer. Then, the story jumps forward fifty years to Claire Silver and Michael Deane, production assistant and famous Hollywood producer. After a long day of listening to bad pitches, an old Italian man tells her he is looking for Dee Moray. Claire calls Michael Deane. He drops everything the minute he hears the name, Dee Moray. Jess Walter introduces more and more characters with each passing chapter. As I read some of these chapters, they reminded me of character-driven short stories. Page by page, however, these stories begin to knit together, closer and closer as the book reaches its conclusion. Jess Walter’s ability to connect all the dots is masterful.
I’ve been a fan of Jess Walter for a few years now. The Financial Lives of the Poets brilliantly depicts the desperate actions of a man who overextends himself assuming the late 20th Century American boom economy will never waver. It’s like the TV show Weeds, but better. The Zero is the best meditation on the crass marketing of the tragedy of 9/11 I’ve read. So, my expectations for Beautiful Ruins were exceptionally high, and it did not disappoint. With this book and the many stories that lie within, Jess Walter asks us to think about what we live for, what we love and why. This is perhaps his best novel yet, and the one I hope brings him a deservedly larger audience. Don’t miss out on one of the best books of the year so far! - Brad, Library Director