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Cannonball Read V: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

By Kira | Book Reviews | June 26, 2013 | Comments ()


I'm happy to report that Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter's eighth book (seventh novel) lives up to every enthusiastic blurb that adorns its front and back covers, including accolades like "a literary miracle!" and "damn near perfect." As a result of this victory, Walter is now my second-favorite guy with a girl name, though he remains behind reigning champion Ashley Wilkes from Gone With the Wind. (Because I mean, wasn't he just so nice?)

Ruins opens on the Italian coast in 1962, in a nearly defunct fishing village where Pasquale Tursi--owner and proprietor of the only hotel--is busy rearranging rocks in an attempt to form a beach, which he hopes will draw tourists to the otherwise desolate town. As if summoned, there suddenly appears on the dock Dee Moray, a striking American actress who is spending a night in Porto Vergogna before traveling onwards to Switzerland, where she is slated to receive medical treatment for stomach cancer. Enamored of Dee's beauty--and struck by her serendipitous arrival--Pasquale sets about getting to know her, and in so doing unearths a story whose ramifications span continents, decades and generations.

Indeed, Beautiful Ruins unfolds across time and space; the inaugural chapter in Porto Vergogna gives way to present-day Hollywood, where Claire Silver, the "chief development assistant" for a veteran film producer, is dreading a Friday spent listening to mind-blowingly bad pitches. Claire's story introduces us to Shane Wheeler--a hapless screenwriter with an idea for a period film based on the Donner party. Through an interconnected web of these and other characters, we travel back and forth between Italy and Hollywood, 1962 and the present, to explore the trajectory of lives caught between what is and what might have been.

Despite the novel's sprawling plot, Walter expertly peels away the layers of his story, and is adept at weaving in witty cultural commentary on such diverse topics as globalization, sexism and fame. What emerges is a compelling and beautiful narrative that doesn't suffer for its occasional sidebars, mini-diatribes on subjects like plastic surgery, invasive technology or 21st century television. Rather, the book is better for these insightful and well-placed detours.

June has been a trying month, and I was in dire need of a compelling, epic story to distract me from my worries, work worries and family worries and run-of-the-mill "What if the ice caps melt and we all die?"/"What if aliens turn out to be mean?"/"What if CVS stops carrying my body spray?" worries. I needed a book that would peek at me from between its covers and say "Psssst, hey. Hey you. Look over here." Beautiful Ruins does just that, and does it, well, beautifully.

This review is part of the volunteer Cannonball Read V. Read all about it, and for more of Kira's reviews, check outSorry Television.

(Note: Any revenue generated from purchases made through the amazon.com affiliate links in this review will be donated in entirety to the American Cancer Society.)

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • LoudVal

    I loved all the Italian backstory. But the present day, set in Hollywood bits ruined this for me (ugh, an awful pun, sorry).

  • Agreed. When I read and reviewed this for CBR5 I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but this is probably it. I felt like the book was trying to tell us something important, but the present day parts lacked the heart of the 1962 parts.

  • mclbolton

    I , too , loved this book . I heard a rumor that it is soon to be a movie.

  • apsutter

    I just read this last week and loved it!! I liked how it jumped around in time and slowly revealed the destiny of its characters, especially the singer(can't remember his name right now). It also has one of the most beautiful covers I've seen in a while.

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