Book Review: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

book cover with dwellings along a sea

Title: Beautiful Ruins

Author: Jess Walter

Published: 2012

Pages: 337

Genre: Historical Fiction

Format: Print copy

My rating: 4/5


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. 


We want what we want.

This sentiment is an ever-present theme throughout the novel as we transition between several points of view as well as 50 years of history. The interplay of fame with reality and Hollywood not being all it’s cracked up to be humbles several main characters. I feel that there was enough depth in each of the character arcs despite the alternating chapters. Including elements from scripts, memoirs, letters, and novels adds more personality to the story and more insight into the characters.

Pasquale’s story was probably the one I related to the most. He struggled with closing the gap between his desires and what is right. He does his best to make amends and to try not to judge others of what he has himself done. The young writer, Shane, intrigued me with his motto of ACT (emblazoned across his forearm), referring to the Bible passage, Act as if ye have faith and it shall be given to you. He doesn’t allow chance or luck to define him but creates his own destiny, until he gets his first bits of failure and denial in love and work. That concept, though, reminds me a lot of our mentality and how that truly shapes outcomes in life.

Knowing that the fate of Richard, Dee, Pasquale was due to the rollercoaster of publicity made me ponder most stories we see in the entertainment world and why those were chosen to be shared. I’ve always been a skeptic but this enhanced that tingling! I appreciated the combination of topics covered: drugs, abortion, assisted suicide, infidelity, honor/loyalty, cancer, and on and on. They flowed into one another in a way that was not overwhelming or unbelievable.

Other quotes/passages that stood out to me:

What kind of wife would I be if I left your father simply because he is dead? (Walter 4)

It was odd and intimate, their hands connected, their heads in different rooms. They could talk. They could hold hands. But they couldn’t see each other’s faces (Walter 110)

Sometimes it was like a deep ache, the simple act of breathing in and out” (Walter 186)

Read Beautiful Ruins if you like the themes of:

  • Hollywood
  • Italy
  • Love
  • Secrets
  • Sacrifice

What do you think of the phrase “We want what we want”?

One thought on “Book Review: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

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