Beautiful Ruins is a work of fiction that includes a few characters who are based on real people. Specifically, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton who starred in the movie Cleopatra (which was released in 1963). The more prominent characters, however, are ones created by Jess Walter.
Pasquali Tursi is the first character that readers encounter, and he is extremely likable. He finds himself smitten with Dee Moray, an actress who was supposed to be in the Cleopatra movie, but who cannot now because she is dying. Dee comes to visit Pasquali’s small village on accident.
I did a Google Search for Dee Moray, but could not find anything that indicates that the woman exists in reality. Instead, I found the name of an actress that was going to play her in the movie version of this book – but who dropped out of the film. There is a parallel here between fiction and reality.
Pasquali is the youngest son of two parents who lost their older sons in the war. This caused his parents to be very overprotective of him. Eventually, Pasquali left his small village to go to college. He returns after his father has died, and his mother has gotten sick. Pasquali’s biggest dream is to improve his father’s small hotel so that American guests would come and stay there.
The hotel is named “The Adequate View”, and I’ll leave you to read the book to find out how it got its name.
The small town Pasquali lives in is mostly a fishing village. It can only be accessed by boat, and has very little that would be considering interesting enough to attract tourists. The name of the town is Porto Vergogna. It’s hardly big enough to be considered a port, and Vergogna means “shame”. It was best known as a place that sailors could come to when they wanted to find prostitutes.
One day, as Pasquali is working on creating a beach, an American actress arrives by boat. Dee Moray is dying, and intends to travel to Switzerland for treatment as soon as she can. She’s waiting for someone from the movie she was working on to come get her. Pasquali becomes smitten with her right away, and the two eventually become close friends.
I found Pasquali very endearing, even after the book reveals a big mistake that he made when he was younger. Without spoiling the story, I will say that the most interesting thing about the situation is that readers get to see the moment when Pasquali realizes the magnitude of what he has done.
Beautiful Ruins is a book that skips around in time, and brings readers into the heads of various characters. One of them is Claire Silver, who, decades later, finds herself miserable. She hates her job as a person who reads scripts and suggests the best ones to her boss, Michael Deane. He ignores her suggestions, and she finds that frustrating.
Claire is about to quit her job in favor of one she has an interview for. She’s looking for a sign about which way to go. In addition, Claire is about to break up with her boyfriend, who stays out all night at strip clubs and who doesn’t have a job. Unexpectedly, the sign she is looking for appears when Pasquali arrives at the movie lot.
The Michael Deane character is instantly unlikable. I believe the author intended readers to be at least somewhat repulsed by him. He’s fake and self-centered, and completely unaware of how badly he treats other people.
To me, the title Beautiful Ruins is a reference not only to the Roman ruins in Italy, but also to a multitude of other things. It can refer to the Cleopatra movie which (in the book, at least) is ridiculously expensive, full of off-screen drama, and hampered by everything from weather to cast changes. In reality, the finished movie was visually beautiful.
It also refers to many of the characters. Alvis Bender is a good example of what I mean. He’s a American writer who has ruined his life in so many ways. Alvis comes to The Adequate View in the summer to write his book. But, he’s been unable to write more than a chapter. Instead, he spends his time drinking.
Readers are treated to a chapter that contains what Alvis Bender wrote. The font in the chapter resembles what one might expect from a typewriter, and the story is compelling and nuanced and authentic. The writer in Alvis is beautiful; the man himself is in a state of ruin.
I’m leaving a lot out of this review so readers can enjoy it unspoiled. There’s a sentence in the story that stuck with me. Claire watches an extremely emotional play in a theater, and thinks: “Maybe all love is hopeless.”
There are plenty of examples of that in the book, including references to the relationship between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Relationships fail, even the ones that start off beautifully. It is because all of us are in some state of ruin, eroded by time and emotional weather.
Beautiful Ruins: a Novel – by Jess Walter is a post written by Jen Thorpe on Book of Jen and is not allowed to be copied to other sites.
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