Anyone who regularly reads contemporary fiction surely has encountered the trend of the time traveling novel – stories that zig-zag between different eras and epochs, challenging our notions of narrative structure, even subverting them at times. Such novels are, seemingly, a dime-a-dozen and too often, for all their narrative creativity, they lack the elements that make for a truly memorable work of fiction: dynamic and vividly drawn characters whose struggles and achievements the reader can feel nearly as dramatically as her own. The truly great novelist, of which, to be sure, there are very few, is the story teller who effectively blends both creative narrative structure with fully realized characters. This, of course, is no secret. Yet it’s a truth that seems to elude many aspiring writers who are so concerned with one that they fail to achieve anything particularly real in the other.
Such readers would do well to read Jess Walter’s 2012 novel, Beautiful Ruins, a decades-spanning story that follows more than a half-dozen characters as they each seek to fulfill their various dreams, capture their wayward loves, and meet their unfulfilled potential.
In April of 1962, in the tiny Italian seaside village of Porto Vergogna, a young innkeeper name Pasquale watches as a beautiful American actress named Dee Moray descends onto his dock and checks into his hotel. Upon discovering that Dee is suffering from an illness believed to be cancer, Pasquale takes it upon himself to provide for her some modicum of comfort and happiness. As they bond over long, intimate conversations, this young Italian innkeeper and his mysterious American guest begin to discover that they are very much alike, despite their differences in cultural standing, future potential, and certainly past experiences. They spend only a few days together but in that brief time they form a deep friendship that impacts the rest of their lives, lives which take them across the world from one another.
Meanwhile, in present day, a clever but self-centered film producer named Michael Deane faces the end of a career made successful more by selfishness and cunning than any creative decision. He’s made a name for himself by bankrolling the sort of TV shows and movies MTV would be likely to air and in return those shows and movies have bankrolled a lavish lifestyle Hollywood’s biggest names would envy. As he seeks one final project to cap his career – and to free him from what he believes to be a constraining contract – Deane is confronted by the memory of the young actress who he shipped off to a small Italian coastal village to save the reputation of his star, Richard Burton, and Burton’s famous relationship with the renowned Elizabeth Taylor, an actress who, although she never never appears in the book, haunts its every passage.
Meanwhile we meet Dee’ son, a gifted but troubled musician now entering middle age; Dean’s young assistant, Claire, who is caught between her boss’s gift at making money and her own aspirations; Shane, a not-so-gifted screen writer who thinks the tragic story of the Donner party would make for a successful film for Deane’s studio; and a war-burned wannabe writer named Alvis Bender who, in the early 60′s, pens in Pasquale’s cliff-side hotel the first mournful chapter of the novel he never finishes.
Along the way we meet the drink-obsessed Richard Burton, read an inventive chapter from Deane’s tell-all memoir, and dive into a fictional behind-the-scenes portrayal of one of Hollywood’s most legendary films.
But this isn’t a novel about film or writing or Italy or music or love or sickness or death. It’s a novel of great depth about the way our lives mean, about how each life is, as the title suggests, both beautiful and ruined and how, perhaps, each life is beautiful because of the ruins.
So, yes, this is one of those contemporary novels that fits within that aforementioned trend we’re so familiar with. But Beautiful Ruins is decidedly not just one of those dozen worth a dime. It’s far too fully realized in both narrative structure and character and is therefore a book that deserves all the accolades its received. It’s a true work of art that both celebrates this life and mourns its inevitable passing. Beautiful, riveting, haunting, and close to a modern classic, it proves that Mr. Walter is a truly great novelist.