Beautiful Ruins, By Jess Walter

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Walter, J. (2012). Beautiful ruins. New York: Harper Collins.

Paperback $15.99, Hardcover $26.99, Kindle $5.99,  Audible 12 hrs and 53 minutes, 352 pages

ISBN: 978-0061928123

Author’s Website and Interviews:

 http://www.jesswalter.com/

http://www.thenervousbreakdown.com/golear/2012/07/much-more-than-adequate-view-an-interview-with-jess-walter/

Online Reviews:

The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/08/books/review/beautiful-ruins-a-novel-by-jess-walter.html?_r=0

NPR: http://www.npr.org/2012/06/18/155097608/beautiful-ruins-both-human-and-architectural

Annotation: Claire Silver’s life is at cross-road until she uncovers a Hollywood scandal involving her boss which alters the course of her career.

Summary (Warning-Semi Spoiler): The story opens in 1962 in Porto Vergogna, Italy when a young inn keeper named Pasquale Tursi encounters a beautiful young American actress named Dee Moray who has come to stay at his isolated hotel which he has taken over after the death of his father. He soon learns that Dee, an actress in the film Cleopatra opposite Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, is dying of stomach cancer. The story then shifts to present day and introduces Claire Silver, Chief Development Assistant for Michael Deane, the once legendary film producer who has a complex history with Dee and Pasquale. Claire encounters Pasquale in her office one day in search of Michael Deane. At the same moment, her four o’clock appoint shows up in hopes of pitching his new film idea. Having studied in Italy, Shane Wheeler is able to serve as translator and informs Claire that it is urgent that Mr. Tursi meet with Deane as soon as possible as he has come in search of Dee. Claire, Pasquale, and Shawn soon learn the role Michael Deane played in Dee’s disappearance from film due to her “stomach cancer” which turns out to have been a huge cover concocted by Deane himself in order to protect an actor involved in his film. As the pasts are explored, painful and powerful truths emerge that have the power to bring Michael Deane’s world crashing down around him.

Evaluation: I really enjoyed the parallel narrative as I felt it gave each character a powerful voice and really helped me to connect with their story. The interlocking plots really helped propel the story forward although I did find the story a bit choppy and hard to follow at times but it always seemed to get back on track eventually. I listened to the Audible version of this book while I read along and it was a great experience. The narrator, Edoardo Ballerini did a fantastic job and captured the Italian language beautifully. His reading was charismatic and breathed new life into the story and the characters. I thought the book translated very well to audio as it captured the cinematic quality of the novel and the characters perfectly. Reading along with the audio narration really helped keep names in check as well as time frames since the book jumps around a lot between past and present.

Genre: Mainstream Fiction (Parallel narratives)

Appeal Factors: Character-driven, intricately plotted, romantic, upbeat, and engaging

Read-alike Titles and Authors:

  • High Fidelity, by Nick Hornby
  • The Pirate’s Daughter, by Margaret Cezair-Thompson
  • A Visit From the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan

Awards: 2012-Booklist Editors’ Choice: Best Fiction Books, 2012 Library Journal Best Books, 2012 New York Times Notable Books: Fiction and Poetry

Booktalk Ideas:

  • Use an if/then scenario with the reader and/or audience. Ask questions like, “If Dee Moray wouldn’t have left Porto Vergogna, then she might have ended up with Pasquale. If Michael hadn’t lied to Dee about her medical condition then she wouldn’t have wound up at Porto Vergogna or met Alvis Bender. How would these alternate scenarios impact your view of the characters, storyline. Would it enhance it, detract from it?

Book Discussion Questions:

  1. Why did Pasquale never admit his feelings for Dee? Do you think they could have worked out knowing his situation with Amadea?
  2. Why was Dee so quick to believe the doctor Michael Deane sent her too? Is she just gullible, naive, or enamored with being an actress?
  3. How does meeting Pasquale, Shawn, and Dee alter the course of Claire’s life? Were you surprised she stayed with Daryl despite his many shortcomings?
  4. Why did Dee marry Alvis? Why wasn’t Richard a part of Pat’s life? Do you think she made the right decision not pursuing a relationship with Richard or Pasquale?

I had stumbled across this book at my local book store and was immediately drawn in by the beautiful cover. I love anything to do with the 60’s and Italy so this book appeared to be a perfect combination. I was dying to know the details of this “almost-love affair” and how it was rekindled over 50 years later. The title piqued my curiosity as I wanted to know if it referred to just the town or to its inhabitants as well!

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