Sunday, July 29, 2012

Review: Beautiful Ruins

 Summary: 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. -- Harper

I have heard some pretty good things about Jess Walter, but for some unknown (and unfortunate) reason, I hadn't read any of his novels. All that changed a few weeks ago when I picked up BEAUTIFUL RUINS. All I can say is, "wow!" This novel was extremely special and I was blown away by Mr. Walter's writing skills. Now I'm absolutely kicking myself for waiting so darn long to read this author!

BEAUTIFUL RUINS is not easy to sum up in just a few sentences, so I'm going to wimp out and just say, "Read the publisher's summary at the beginning of this review." It's way better than anything I could ever put together. (I know because I tried and I discovered that I had written three very long paragraphs just describing the high points of the novel!) What I can tell you  is that there are a lot of characters (close to a dozen) and a lot of stories about them. In addition, the story covers a fifty year time period, goes back and forth between the present and the past, and takes place in such unique locations including the Italian coastline, Hollywood, Edinburgh, Seattle, and Idaho. I thought it was a very ambitious novel, but Mr. Walter amazingly made it all work.

I admit that I'm a bit overwhelmed trying to write this review. Not only did I have difficulties in writing a summary, but I'm also having a hard time trying to articulate what made this book so special to me. Of course, there are a number of fabulous things about BEAUTIFUL RUINS, but one thing that really stood out to me was the plot (or should I say plots?) of this novel. He brought together so many unique (and even zany) characters and stories, and the entire time I was reading, I couldn't believe how well it all worked. I continually wondered, "How in the world did he think of these people and their stories?"

And then there's his writing. What can I say, but... it's marvelous and original. I loved his prose and his descriptions of the settings, and I even thought his dialogue was spot-on. However, his characters and their actions were pretty remarkable in their own right. The characters he created were larger-than-life and certain to remain in my thoughts for a very long time -- I even appreciated his portrayal of Richard Burton. Furthermore, I loved how these characters just came to life -- they were all very real to me and I was interested in every single one of them.

Another truly great thing about BEAUTIFUL RUINS was how entertaining it was. I've already mentioned that I was captivated by the characters and their actions, but I didn't mention how hilarious this book was. There were numerous characters that were truly funny like Michael Deane the aging Hollywood producer and, of course, Richard Burton. However, I was also deeply affected by many of the characters and their lives. BEAUTIFUL RUINS encompassed so much about basic human nature and how we interact with each other. It also reminded me of how much our past actions can influence our future selves. What I just loved about this novel is that it made me think and feel -- truly feel; and that's not always the case when I sit down to read a book.

BEAUTIFUL RUINS would make a great book club pick. I can honestly say it's a unique story and I don't think my group has read anything like this in our almost ten year existence. I wasn't able to find a formal reading guide, but I have no doubt that every reader will want to talk about this story and its characters. Some of the themes that you might want to explore include all types of love, loss, addiction, career aspirations, disappointment, parent/child relationships, illness, and friendship.

I honestly can't recommend BEAUTIFUL RUINS enough! I adored this funny, yet touching, novel; and it's definitely going to be one of my favorite summer reads of 2012.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this novel.


Harvee said...

I have this book on my radar, and will try to find it when I have some time! Nice review.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Wow, this sounds fantastic! You are very generous with praise, but even more so with this one so I know it must be really special!

Sandy Nawrot said...

Yeah, I read The Financial Lives of the Poets and was pretty impressed with the guy. So freaking snarky! But at the same time, full of insight and wisdom on the human condition. I bought this on Kindle because it is my goal (we'll see if I make it) to read it this summer. I am in way over my head at this point but it is on the short list.

bermudaonion said...

Every single review I've read of this book is overwhelmingly positive. It sounds fantastic!!

Laura at Library of Clean Reads said...

You've written a wonderful review and convinced me to pick this one up at Costco. I really want to read it now more than ever. Just that picture of the Italian coastline is beckoning to me.

Beth F said...

argh! I feel I'm totally missing out. I really need to read this.