Books 2013 – Beautiful Ruins
Talk about a book I couldn’t wait to get back to! This book has it all. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter is laugh-out-loud funny and also very touching at times; a mixture of three-parts love story, one-part mystery, all rolled in a delicious Hollywood farce. The whole thing unravels in a wonderful way that had me sad when it was over.
The novel opens in 1962 with a sepia-toned image of a beautiful actress arriving by boat to an isolated town on the Italian coast called Porto Vergogna. From his place on the tiny shore, where he is fruitlessly trying to build a beach in front of his tiny pensione, twenty-two-year-old Pasquale Turisi watches her approach. It turns out that the actress is on a break from filming Cleopatra in Rome, and although she is not Elizabeth Taylor, Taylor’s relationship with Richard Burton plays a huge part in the plot of the novel. The actress who comes to Porto Verfogna is Dee Mornay, a minor player in the cast who has been told she’s dying of stomach cancer. Pasquale falls immediately in love with her.
There are also parts of the book that take place in the present time, in Hollywood, where Claire Silver is contemplating leaving her job as an assistant to film producer Michael Deane. Deane, as a character, is both sad and hilarious. Almost everything about him is artifice; he’s had so many plastic surgeries and other procedures that he has “the face of a nine-year-old Filipino girl.” Michael was once a powerful and successful Hollywood producer, but lately, the money has been in reality shows, and he’s behind one called “Hookbook” which involves following strangers who meet on blind dates. Deane got his big break fixing problems on the set of Cleopatra in 1962, and it’s Deane whom Pasquale comes looking for in the present time to help him find the Dee Moray.
Because Pasquale speaks no English, he needs a translator, and he finds one in Shane Wheeler, a failed novelist who happens to be pitching the worst movie idea ever (a screenplay called “Donner!” about, you guessed it, The Donner Party) on the same Friday afternoon that Pasquale shows up looking for Deane. And Deane, who at this point in his career has various motives, agrees to take this odd assortment of characters on a road trip to find Dee Moray.
For all of the satire, the characters are very real. It’s fun to look in, even in a fictional sense, on the filming of Cleopatra in 1962, reportedly an epic disaster story in its own. The scenes in the book with the drunken Richard Burton are some of the funniest things I have ever read. The book kind of made me want to go back and watch the film.
Overall, I can’t recommend this book enough. So far, it’s the best thing I’ve read this year.