Anyone who follows me on Twitter or has read any of my posts here on The Savvy Reader knows I’ve been a big Jess Walter fan for years and should know that it will be very hard for me to stay under 100 words on this review and I’ll just state from sentence one that I could ramble on and on (and have) about just how terrific a novel Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter is.
Beautiful Ruins begins in 1962 on the Amalfi coast with charming young Pasquale, whose penchant for dreaming the impossible has a tendency to muddle his reality. Into his simple life sweeps a beautiful actress; a woman he instantly recognizes as unattainable. She is dying.
The book shifts between two different eras: 1962 Italy and present-day Hollywood. Initially, I was disappointed to leave each section behind but as I became caught in the story I realized that I was being led toward an ending that is wholly fulfilling. Turn a chapter and 50 years later we are in present day Hollywood an elderly Italian man has traveled half the world in search of the mysterious woman he’s never stopped thinking about. To borrow some website copy, this is the story of “an almost love affair.”
To me, the greatness of Beautiful Ruins –and don’t be mistaken, this is a great novel—is that the author has pulled the amazing trick of creating an epic novel exploring the choices people make, the paths we skew from and how those decisions can shape, haunt and move us for the rest of our lives that could be about anyone while making it feel like it’s about us. The characters are humorous and flawed, heroic and scheming, bland and extraordinary. In any other novel the arrival of Hollywood legend Richard Burton to occupy the same scene as Pasquale (himself, completely un-star like) would seem farcical, yet in Jess Walter’s hands Burton suddenly feels more real than in half his movies.
Richard Russo called Beautiful Ruins “a masterpiece.” My girlfriend, upon finishing it just said, “ridiculous! Jess is just a ridiculous writer. He’s so good.”
All I’ll say is that it’s the new novel from an author whose work I’ve loved for years and may be his very best. If I recommend one book to you this year, it’ll be this one.
Follow me on Twitter @corybeatty
Jess Walter is also now on Twitter. You can follow him @Jess__Walter