Beautiful Ruins is beautiful and smart in a way that made me think of Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility (my take on it here) in that it is well-plotted and the characters are appealing. The time and setting range from World War II in Italy to 1962 on Italy’s Cinque Terre coast and Rome to the present day in Hollywood, Seattle, and northern Idaho. Oh yes, and there’s a brief time in London and the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh. Jess Walter successfully has his characters speak in the voices of those times and evokes the beauty of those places.
The complicated story involves a beautiful American actress who washes up in a tiny village on the Italian coast, having become pregnant on the set of Cleopatra. She was stashed there by the young publicist for the movie who turns up in the book 40-some years later in Hollywood. One of the most appealing characters is Pasquale, the young man who has inherited the always empty family hotel in the Cinque Terre fishing village. From the moment he saw the actress arrive in his little village, he fell in love with her.
The author introduces and manages to weave together an amazing number of characters. There’s the young man who pitches a screen play called Donner! that doesn’t dwell on cannibalism, but well, it’s there. Then there’s American man who shows up each year in the little village to write his book, but in fact is just re-writing the first chapter. We learn about the subject of his book, his experiences in war-time Italy. There’s Claire, the assistant to Michael Dean (the publicist for Cleopatra), who can’t decide between the dry academic life and the horror of listening to pitches for movies that may involve cannibalism. Richard Burton turns up for a time.
The main plot is quite satisfying and twists are unexpected but reasonable. I loved all the tangential characters who were treated with love and respect. Sometimes having multiple characters can detract from the main story, but in this case, the connections worked and the characters interesting enough to hold your attention. This was especially challenging in my case, given that my attention was commanded by the 21-month-old cute fellow visiting me just now.