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Since I write novels set in Italy I’m unreasonably tetchy when other authors choose to do the same. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter (Penguin) has forced me to get over myself. Set in the 1960s and the present-day, this is a witty and inventive tragi-comedy; fabulous if flawed, and not like anything I’ve read before…or written.
It opens in 1962 Italy where Pasquale Tursi is an innkeeper in the tiny coastal settlement of Porto Vergogna. While picturesque, this remote spot is overlooked by the tourists who favour the Cinque Terra and the Italian Riviera. But Pasquale is a dreamer. He has plans to build a beach and a cliff-top tennis court to draw hordes of glamorous Americans to his establishment.
Pasquale is standing chest-deep in the sea piling up rocks to create a breakwater when he first sets eyes on the beautiful American actress Dee Moray. Diagnosed with stomach cancer, she has fled the set of Cleopatra, (the infamous Richard Burton/Elizabeth Taylor epic), and come to hole up in his humble hotel to await a mystery man.
In the story’s second strand, in present-day Hollywood, Claire Silver is working as an assistant to legendary but fading film producer Michael Deane. Claire spends her days listening to desperate pitches from a bunch of no-hopers. The latest one, Shane Wheeler, is heading her way with an impractical movie concept about cannibalism. But Claire is about to receive another, unexpected visitor, a silver-haired Italian man who hopes to track down the beautiful actress he last set eyes on 50 years ago.
The plot of Beautiful Ruins doesn’t bear up to too much scrutiny. At times the story verges on slapstick or descends towards French farce. There is a cache of stock characters and nothing unexpected about any of the satire but none of that matters because this book is just so much fun.
I loved the slick, cinematic writing – particularly a description of Los Angeles waking for the day. This is a story about big, crazy dreams and yes it is mostly implausible but also romantic, thoughtful and wry, touching and humorous – plus Richard Burton has a walk-on part that is ridiculous but very funny.
Beautiful Ruins took US writer Jess Walters 15 years to write and I can understand why. It’s a novel that’s ambitious in scope with multiple themes, lots of layers and many characters. The story jumps about in time and takes forays into fragments of memoirs, crazed movie pitches and parts of plays. Despite that this is a delicious book to relax with; not a dense or challenging read at all. In fact, if you’re looking for a novel pitched somewhere between a chick lit blockbuster and literary fiction Beautiful Ruins might just be it.
There are plenty of other novels around about the shallowness of Hollywood, the hopelessness of love and yes, even about Italy. But none quite like this one.