Well, it would appear that you can actually judge a book by its cover. The only reason I picked this one up was because of the picture of the Ligurian village of Manarola on the front. I visited the Cinque Terre the year before last and of course seeing it again brought back some beautiful memories. The blurb on the back sounded a bit soppy and over the top, but Beautiful Ruins would have to be one of the most original and intriguing books I’ve read in a long time.
To describe Beautiful Ruins is a tricky task as it is a very busy story. It bounces between decades; is predominantly set in Italy but also in the U. S.; and includes a menagerie of characters, including Liz Taylor and Richard Burton. On the surface, the book is all Hollywood – actors, scandals, movie pitches and dodgy P. R. people, but beneath it all is the story of a group of people whose paths ultimately intersect in order to deliver a message. The message is that“ life is a glorious catastrophe”: what we experience in this world is “the sweet lovely mess that is real life.” In other words, despite the fact that we all have problems and nonsense that goes on in our lives, that’s how it should be. Instead of seeking perfection – a perfect life, we should make the most of what is actually happening to us and take it for what it is – our life.
I like the fact that this essentially romantic novel is written by a man. Walter brings a certain wit and an almost cynical edge to the story and its characters. No individual is central to the story, but some are more memorable than others. Pasquale, for example, dreams of building a tennis court into the cliffs above his Hotel so that the town where he lives will become famous, and American tourists will flock to The Adequate View Hotel. He has comically overlooked the fact that tennis players can gain their points by the other player missing the ball and that a lot of balls will go straight into the ocean. It would also be impossible to build a court into the cliffs without blasting away enormous chunks of it to begin with.
Of course, Jess Walter is an old hand at writing, with eight books under his belt, as well as an Edgar Allan Poe Award and various nominations, but I’d actually never heard of him before. After reading this one, though, I’ll certainly be seeking out more of his titles in the future.