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Brutally honest book reviews

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

posted by Jenny
Beautiful Ruins Book Cover Beautiful Ruins
Jess Walter
June 4, 2012

The story begins in 1962. On a rocky patch of the sun-drenched Italian coastline, a young innkeeper, chest-deep in daydreams, looks on over the incandescent waters of the Ligurian Sea and spies an apparition: a tall, thin woman, a vision in white, approaching him on a boat. She is an actress, he soon learns, an American starlet, and she is dying.

And the story begins again today, half a world away, when an elderly Italian man shows up on a movie studio's back lot-searching for the mysterious woman he last saw at his hotel decades earlier.

What unfolds is a dazzling, yet deeply human, roller coaster of a novel, spanning fifty years and nearly as many lives. From the lavish set of Cleopatra to the shabby revelry of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Walter introduces us to the tangled lives of a dozen unforgettable characters: the starstruck Italian innkeeper and his long-lost love; the heroically preserved producer who once brought them together and his idealistic young assistant; the army veteran turned fledgling novelist and the rakish Richard Burton himself, whose appetites set the whole story in motion-along with the husbands and wives, lovers and dreamers, superstars and losers, who populate their world in the decades that follow.

I have seen Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter everywhere since it was released, and I didn’t want to miss out on a hot book despite the fact that something about the cover or the title really reminds me of a romance, which is a big turn-off for me. Luckily, it wasn’t (a typical romance, at least).


Dee Moray is a just starting-out American actress who finds herself at the only hotel in a tiny village on the Italian coast in 1962. Despite brushing elbows with movie stars, she is down-to-earth and strong, and a likable character. I can’t quite form any connection to her though, since this part of Beautiful Ruins is narrated by the village hotel owner, Pasquale. Any flirting between them is so subtle, that it is hard to tell if there are any feelings, and if they are reciprocated.

This alternates with the present-day which is narrated by Claire, a famous movie producers’ assistant who gets sucked into the past. Her personal life isn’t overly interesting to follow, and other characters opinions of her aren’t flattering. She also doesn’t seem to make the best choices. She is probably not someone that I would be friends with.


The beginning of Beautiful Ruins was very slow–painfully uninteresting, really. It was helpful and adequate for setting the stage for the rest of the book, but that didn’t make it any easier to get through. It did seem to pick up a little into the middle and the end, but all the way through it seemed to remain…dull…to me. Even the end was rather lackluster. Too little, too late. There didn’t seem to be any regret or talk of missed opportunities. The big secret that was kept throughout Beautiful Ruins and revealed at the end really had no significance or impact.

The Verdict

The writing, however, is superb; Jess Walter’s descriptors and choice of phrasing is very rich and colorful. This is really what kept Beautiful Ruins alive for me, as my interest in the characters was waning.

Have you read Beautiful Ruins? Share your thoughts with us in the comments!

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