Book Club Review for “Beautiful Ruins”

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter– June 2014

blog by Cindy Bushey


Well, here we finally are, it is summer! That wonderful time of picnics, family gatherings, and reunions under the hot sun and in the shade of tall trees where one can become reacquainted with far-flung relatives and catch up with all the events that have happened in the lives of cousins, aunts, uncles and friends. Everyone talks at once, and the conversation is a mish-mash of tangents that somehow come together to make up a glorious whole. Zion’s readers found just such a conversation in the pages of the novel with which they closed their year of reading – Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter.

Mr. Walter set much of his story in hot, sunny Italy, and his descriptions of the coastal areas, cliffs, and towns drew our readers into the claustrophobic streets, the vivid beauty of the countryside, and the hot drama of daily life back in the 1960’s as a movie was being filmed. He threw characters at us willy-nilly, and we listened to their part of the story while not really sure how it was all going to connect. We were introduced to Dee, a young American actress who had been told she had a fatal illness. Before we had processed her, we met Pasquale, a young Italian innkeeper with grandiose plans for a family hotel. Soon after came Alvis, a writer who could not write. Then local townspeople and relatives of Pasquale made appearances. Although the author not only jumped from character to character in each chapter but also back and forth in time, our readers still felt the crossing of these stories would eventually be woven together.

We met a sleazy Hollywood pr man and learned exactly how wicked Tinsel Town was back in the heyday of epic productions. To top it all off, the movie in which our ailing actress had a role was none other than Cleopatra starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor whose lives were filled with personal drama and marriage break-ups! Once Richard Burton, an actor of passionate temperament, assumed an important role in this novel, our readers’ attention was well and truly hooked.

The author took us on a tour of many beautiful ruins – physical ruins from World War II still hauntingly present in the characters’ memories, ruined relationships running the gamut from the celebrity to the peasant, the destruction of trust, the grief of loss, the consequences of choice. And yet, strange as it sounds, this book was a paean to hope and love. Characters rebuilt new relationships, deliberately shouldered duty, and forged happier paths. Maybe these paths did not have the giddy, mind-blowing elation of the lost times, but moral choices were made to move forward with life and create good from the bad. Through it all ran the niggling sense of hope that somehow things would come right, that paths would reconnect.

Mr. Walter did not disappoint; a very imaginative play marked the start of the denouement. His well-developed, quirky, and engaging characters drew Zion’s readers into their mixed-up lives and brought us to an ironic reunion many years later complete with tension, tears, and laughter. The author’s ability to set just the right tone extended even to the ending which many of our readers did not recognize, turning the page for the next installment, only to realize that the story was done. The characters now lived in our imaginations and the final ending could be found there, too. We agreed this novel was an entertaining end to our year and had six readers give it one thumb up with one reader remaining neutral. If any of our blog readers are in the mood for an armchair tour of Italy this summer, Beautiful Ruins would fit the bill.