As is often the way for me, I was initially drawn to this book by the cover. I love its retro style, the colours it is printed in and the slightly smug expressions on the chiselled faces of the couple that adorn it. I then went on to read some of the very positive reviews about it and soon succumbed to the urge to buy and read it.
Because of the glowing reviews I had read of ‘Beautiful Ruins’ I had great expectations of this being one of my novels of the year, or certainly my book of the summer. I’m still trying to work out what I really thought of it and strangely I feel that I am enjoying it more now I have finished it and am mulling it over, than I did when I was actually reading it. Not sure that makes sense but maybe my expectations of it were too high and consequently I was slightly disappointed a least for some of time I was reading it.
This story begins with Pasquale the young Italian innkeeper of ‘the adequate view hotel’ at the moment he first sets eyes on Dee the breathtakingly beautiful American actress. The story starts in 1962 and flits between then and the present. The large cast of characters linked to Pasquale and Dee take us to and from the stunning Ligurian coast of Italy, via the glitz of Hollywood, the emptiness of London the chaos of the Edinburgh festival and finally back to Italy. For me one of the strengths of ‘Beautiful Ruins’ is the vivid sense of each place Walters was able to give as the action moved from one country to another. In Italy I could hear the waves crashing around the rocky shore and feel the warmth of the early evening sun on the back of my neck just as in Edinburgh I could feel the damp cold summer air grazing my skin.
There is lots going on in this novel and the plot thickens as more and more characters (including Richard Burton) emerge. I was most engaged with the novel when Pasquale was at the centre of the story and did struggle with some of the other characters. Walters has lots to say about human frailty and failure, celebrity, love, regret and is in parts desperately sad. It is however, peppered with enough humorous moments to stop it at any point tipping into tragedy.
The book is cleverly written and weaves together the stories of multiple bit part players throughout so that in the final chapters everything is knitted neatly together with no loose ends remaining. In fact I loved the ending. This book apparently took Jess Walter fifteen years of stop-start writing to complete. In some ways the complexity of the story makes this unsurprising.
This is without doubt a highly imaginative novel and one that would be the perfect accompaniment to any summer holiday but would also brighten up the darkest of winters days.