“But 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.”
What to do when the library’s holds for current releases reaches the 200’s? Open your “Want to Read” list, close your eyes and pick. That random act produced a fantastic read in “Beautiful Ruins” by Jess Walter. It’s a wonderfully written story of lost opportunities reclaimed.
It is 1962 in Porto Vergogna, a fictional town on the rocky Italian coastline, where young Pasquale spies a beautiful, blonde woman on a boat. He learns that she is an American actress and she is dying. When her boat docks and they meet, she smiles at him and Pasquale falls in love and “would remain in love for the rest of his life – not so much with the woman, whom he didn’t even know, but with the moment.” Pasquale is trying to turn Porto Vergogna into a resort town by running an inn called “Hotel Adequate View.” It is here that he and the actress, two lost souls who have been unceremoniously dumped, take solace in each other for a few days. But the actress goes to Switzerland for treatment and they part.
Fast forward 50 years and we meet Claire Silver, development assistant to movie producer Michael Deane. In 1962, Deane was a publicist on the Taylor-Burton movie “Cleopatra” which helped him rise through the ranks of Hollywood. Now his claim to fame is being the producer of a hit reality dating show called “Hookbook.” Claire has had enough of life with the legendary yet fading Deane and has made plans to not only quit the job but also break-up with her boyfriend. But first, there are two appointments she has to suffer through; one with a young man trying to sell his far-fetched and weird movie about the Donner Party and another with an elderly Italian man searching for an American actress named Dee Moray.
All these characters and more converge to make “Beautiful Ruins” a story that is both funny and poignant, often in the same line. We meet Alvis Bender, a WWII vet who comes to Porto Vergogna each year to write a novel about his place in the war. He continues to rewrite the first chapter again and again and finally realizes that perhaps he said all he has to say in that one chapter. Shane Wheeler is the nice young man with the improbable (yet surprisingly successful) pitch about the Donner Party. And then there is Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Yep, them. They (well, mostly Burton) play a small yet prominent part in the story. Indeed, the title of the book comes from an exquisite phrase where Burton is described as “54 at the time and already a beautiful ruin” (take a look at some old pictures of him and you’ll see the perfection of this line).
The pacing is slow but not in a bad way. “Beautiful Ruins” is a story to savor. It is pensive yet funny and the Italian coastline descriptions are so vivid I felt I was on vacation while reading them. The current timeline provides sharp comment and critique on our fascination and obsession with Hollywood. Through it all, the characters are forever trying to find their place in the world and make sense of their life. “All we have is the story we tell. Everything we do, every decision we make, our strength, weakness, motivation, history, and character – what we believe – none of it is real; it’s all part of the story we tell. But here’s the thing: it’s our…story!”
Which begs the question: what story are you telling about yourself?
As always, I appreciate your time!