Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter, HarperCollins Publishers, 2012, 292 pp
You can read all the reviews and reader comments and blog posts and blurbs, but you never really know about a book until you read it yourself. I was excited to open Beautiful Ruins but my high hopes were gradually but steadily reduced to disappointment.
Too bad because the premise was great: aspiring actress finds herself in the midst of the filming in Rome of "Cleopatra," a movie that was plagued by the contentious love affair between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, budget overruns, and box office disaster. It was the early 60s and Jess Walter's descriptions of the Italian coast are great.
But description hardly makes a novel. Unfortunately most of Walter's characters are flat. I don't mind a novel that jumps back and forth in time but in Beautiful Ruins the jumps are awkwardly placed. Much of the drama in this tale of life's disappointments is written without originality and did not move my emotions.
A few sections are excellent. His portrayal of Richard Burton shimmers with that actor's power, alcoholism, and self-absorption. A chapter where a washed up rock star tries to make a comeback at a festival in Scotland gets the details, the sordidness, and the exploitation just right. The long-suffering reluctant hero, Pasquale Tursi, a young Italian man in love with two women and with honor, was the character who held the story together and made me keep reading.
As uneven as the shores of Italy's Cinque Terre, the novel has peaks of stark wonder and slimy pools of quite mediocre writing. It kept me off balance and hoping but ultimately left me bruised and tired.
In this year's Tournament of Books, the book was paired against The Song of Achilles and both suffer from similar problems. Beautiful Ruins won that round but fell to Gone Girl in the quarter finals. If I had been the judge of either round Beautiful Ruins would have won both times. Comments anyone?
(Beautiful Ruins is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)