"Outside a dog a book is man's best friend, inside a dog it is too dark to read!" -Groucho Marx========="The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." -Jane Austen========="I don’t believe in the kind of magic in my books. But I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book."-JK Rowling========"I spend a lot of time reading." -Bill Gates=========“Ahhh. Bed, book, kitten, sandwich. All one needed in life, really.” -Jacqueline Kelly=========

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Beautiful Ruins a "dazzling roller-coaster of a novel."

The cover of the book makes it look like it was published in the 1960s.
Imagine for a minute all kinds of ruins. Many can be very charming and attractive while others are foreboding and threatening. When I think of ruins I always think of old buildings, but in Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter there are many types of ruins: old buildings clinging to the cliffs of the Cinque Terre in Italy; old Hollywood films and the actors and actresses in them; even the simple lives of characters in the stories and literature. Jess Walter says that literature is full of ruins because "storytelling is about the artifacts we leave behind." He also described how much fun he had writing the book because it was an intriguing puzzle how to put together all the stories, forms, styles, and time periods. (From the interview at the end of the audiobook.)

This is what I picture when I hear the word ruins.
In Beautiful Ruins the story begins in 1962 on the coast of Italy. And the story begins again 50 years later in Sand Point, Idaho. Between these two points in time, stories take place all over: from the lavish set of Cleopatra in Rome, the back offices of Hollywood, the streets of Seattle, and even the grimier parts of Edinburgh, Scotland. Walter introduces us to the "tangled lives of a dozen unforgettable characters": a lonely Italian innkeeper, an alcoholic war veteran, a disenchanted and lovely actress, even Richard Burton himself. "Beautiful Ruins is a story of flawed yet fascinating people, navigating the rocky shores of their lives while clinging to their improbable dreams." (All quotes from the book jacket)

As I listened to the audiobook flawlessly performed by Edoardo Bellerini I was transported by the symbolism in the prose. So many images of ruins came to mind. If I was a college writing professor I'd want to teach this book, encouraging my students to explore all the ways that Walter played with the concept of ruins within its pages. Bellerini was the perfect voice actor for the job, too. He obviously knew his Italian but he could read the American voices without a hint of an accent. I am sure that his performance is partially responsible for how much I enjoyed the book.

A home in the Cinque Terre area of Itay

The opening setting is Porto Vergogna, Italy. A tiny (made up) fishing village clinging to the cliffs of the Cinque Terra and a hotel called The Hotel Adequate View.

Homes which seem to cling to the cliffs.

A beautiful actress, Dee Moray, mistakenly finds her way to the hotel to take a few days break from the filming of Cleopatra in Rome starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
Pasquales entertained the unwieldy thought that he'd somehow summoned her, that after years of living in the place, after months of grief and loneliness and waiting for Americans, he'd created this woman from old bits of cinema and books, from the lost artifacts and ruins of his dreams.
Later Dee Moray confides in Pasquale (the innkeeper):
She tossed her hair back. 'Oh no. I've been thinking about how people sit around for years waiting for their lives to begin, right? Like a movie. You know what I mean? ... I think some people wait forever, and only at the end of their lives do they realize that their life has happened while they were waiting for it to start. Do you know what I mean, Pasquale?'
Hollywood, and the phoniness of the people in it, is introduced to the reader by this actress but then these people have their own stories.
Richard Burton as Anthony in Cleopatra.
Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra
[Dick] Cavett's four great interviews with Richard Burton were done in 1980...Burton, fifty-four at the time, and already a beautiful ruin, were mesmerizing. (-"Talk Story" by Louis Menand, The New Yorker, November 22, 2010).
Elizabeth Taylor only makes a cameo appearance in the book but Burton is a character and we meet him through Pasquale's eyes.
Richard Burton had removed his sunglasses and given a wry smile. He was about Pasquale's height, with thick sideburns, tousled brown hair, and a cleft chin. he had the sharpest features Pasquale had ever seen, as if his face had been sculpted in separate pieces and then assembled on-site.
Beautiful Ruins, the title and the theme of the whole book is beautifully summarized here while Pasquale is having to confront his shattered life.
The world was fractured, broken in so many ways that Pasquale could barely conceive which shard to reach for...The pieces of his broken life lay on the ground before him like a mirror that had always stared back, but which had now broken to reveal the life behind it.
Obviously I really liked this book and hope that this review encourages others to read it. I've actually become quite obsessed with the whole concept of ruins and spent many hours this week sifting through many mental images of ruins. Now I challenge you to share with me what pictures are conjured up when you read it.

Disclaimer:All quotes were from Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, HarperAudio, 2012. Audio CD borrowed from public library.



  1. Wow, that's funny - I listened to this book on audio last summer. I enjoyed it, but I totally missed the whole ruins symbolism! lol Maybe my early audio didn't include that afterward from the author because that doesn't sound familiar - I downloaded a review audio when it first came out. I liked the book, but now it seems I missed a whole layer of meaning!

    Glad you enjoyed it, too -


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    1. I remember reading your review of the audiobook, Sue, and put it on my reading/listening list at that time. Thanks for the recommendation.

  2. I enjoyed the book. I read it awhile ago and although it took a little while for me to get into the story, once I did, I couldn't put it down.


  3. Oh I'm so glad you loved this book too!!! Confession... I was smitten with this book for the cover. I fell in love with it for everything else! The era, the setting, the story, and Cleopatra! :)

    I just did a piece that included Cleopatra for our Mother Daughter banquet last Saturday. http://www.vrbo.com/319353

    There is my idea of Hotel Adequate View ;) Oh and the death defying tennis court!!

    1. It is gratifying to know that I am not the only person who was/is obsessed with this book. Thanks for sharing.

  4. I loved this book too - and really enjoyed your picture research here! You're right, it is a novel that remains with you. You might like a little piece I did for my blog today - on what chocolate would go well with it. A bit of nonsense but it might appeal.


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