Reviewed by Godelinde Gertrude
“Really hope that what’s in the book lives up to what’s outside,” I thought, a little anxiously, seeing the lush, bright cover of Beautiful Ruins. Fortunately, it does: this is a heartwarming book, a delight of a book. Starting with a young American actress arriving at a tiny fishing village on the Ligurian coast (in Italy), the story flashes back and forth between the 1960s and “recently”, picking up a motley crew of characters along the way in Hollywood, Edinburgh and other places, ending full circle back in the Italian village. However, underneath this narrative extravagance there’s a sweet, human love story, which makes the novel so engaging.
Many of the characters are writers themselves (a screenwriter, an author, etc.), which is why the novel frequently switches genres and incorporates their works, such as a play, a movie pitch, an unpublished chapter from a producer’s memoirs. This works as a clever criticism and deconstruction of film business, the complicated relation between life and art and the mystery and appeal of fame. However, this intertextuality and large cast are the two weakest points of the novel, adding more characters and stories instead of developing those already introduced. Especially because the Italian innkeeper and the actress are such endearing characters, I really wish I could have gotten to know them better.
In addition to these lovely characters and the human yet hope-filled story, Jess Walter’s writing is enjoyable in itself. Characters say quotable things like “A writer needs four things to achieve greatness: desire, disappointment and the sea. (…) You need to do disappointment twice.” Lines like these and the vivid descriptions made me read this novel in one go and reread it some weeks later. The book would have been even better with a “less is more approach” but nonetheless, I’d recommend Beautiful Ruins to anyone who’s looking for an enjoyable, well-written summer read (or cheerful read in the winter) that’s both insightful and moving.
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