LitStack Recs: Blue Nights & Beautiful Ruins

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walterruins

Now that summer seems to be winding down, I was thinking about books that are graceful in transition (as it is with the changing of the seasons) and the one that kept coming to me was Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins.

The action takes place between April 1962 and the present, and travels between a tiny Italian fishing villa and Hollywood, with many stops and intermissions along the way. Basically, it is the story of dreamer Pasquale Tursi, whose family owns and runs the antiquated “Hotel Adequate View”, and the day a lovely, dying American actress steps on his makeshift beach.

Pasquale believes that his tiny village of Porto Vergogna could flourish if it simply could draw a bit of attention away from the larger towns along the coastline south of Genoa. Much of the book is written from his point of view, and in it we are enchanted. Not just because he is a rare character with an endearing naiveté and unabashed romantic streak, but one who is practical and only gently flawed, as well.

Pasquale’s dream seems to be coming true when American actress Dee Moray shows up at his beach. She is everything he believes she would be: luminous, wheat-blonde, “impossibly thin yet amply curved”. Her voice is breathy, her Italian non-existent. She is also a creature of tragedy: she is dying of cancer, diagnosed shortly after beginning work on the movie Cleopatra. Her illness has cut that work – and perhaps her career – short; because of her involvement with the film (and to stave off negative publicity), the studio arranges for her retreat to this remote cove to come to terms with the diagnosis and to clandestinely meet with a “friend”.

Of course, life is seldom clear cut – and this becomes so for Pasquale and Dee as well as others who are drawn in to their story, both in Italy and later in the soul-sucking fantasyland of Hollywood: Alvis Bender, a writer who is the only other American to ever stay at the Hotel Adequate View, returning one week each year to work on his novel; Michael Deane, the studio’s executive production assistant later turned legendary film producer; Claire Silver, his young, modern assistant, eager to prove herself; Shane Wheeler, the young wastrel who comes to Hollywood to pitch a movie and ends up being a translator for the events that follow.

Jess Walter takes all of these intertwining story lines and uses flashback, script, chapter and memory to layer time between the past and present. Smaller characters – Pasquale’s mother and aunt, an enthusiastic music promoter, an Italian thug, a VERY famous movie actor, a young girl walking along the road in wartime Italy, a clueless boyfriend – all accentuate the main characters with deft strokes of color and motion, adding a fullness to a story that is already unfolding so gracefully.

Just as effective is the juxtaposition of the gracious and historied Italy – whether remote Porto Vergogna or bustling Rome – with the brash upstart America and its brittle tinsel town. The carried image of sunlight glinting off of waves while fishing boats bob in the distance is ever present throughout much of the story, and gives a depth to the ambiance which is relaxing and invigorating at the same time. When Dee presses a wide-brimmed hat against her head as the wind rouses “the escaped hairs from her ponytail into streamers around her face” upon her arrival, we can picture it perfectly without even trying.

I found reading Beautiful Ruins to be relaxing yet engaging, like the best of vacation getaways. Now that summer is waning, I can’t think of a better way to ease into fall.

—Sharon Browning