Jess Walter's BEAUTIFUL RUINS spans fifty years and deals with 20 or so characters, so it's difficult to sum up, but I'll give it a try. The story begins in Italy in 1962, in a plotline that involves Pasquale, a young innkeeper, Dee Mooray, a lovely dying actress who has been in the country filming CLEOPATRA, Alvis Bender, a failed novelist, and eventually the actor Richard Burton and a young studio employee named Micheal Deane. Pasquale and Dee began a kind of innocent infatuation with one another, and Burton and Dean come to Pasquale's inn to gather Dee. Concurrently, there are plotlines that occur in the late oughts and the present day. The late oughts plotline involves a failed musician and addict Pat Bender as he tries to make sense of his life. The present day plotline involves Michael Deane, his assistant Claire, a failed writer named Shane, and eventually the innkeeper Pasquale, who contacts Deane in the hopes of reuniting with Dee.
It's a big and sometimes messy plot, and I'm happy to report that Walter proves himself more than up to the task of managing it. Every one of the characters mentioned above is compelling and human. The story is so engaging and moves so quickly that I burned through it in a single afternoon. Everything comes together very nicely in the end. My only minor complaint is everything gets tied up so neatly that the emotional impact of the last act is a little blunted.
There's a wonderful extended metaphor toward the end of the story where Pasquale compares looking into Dee's eyes to standing by a door that is slightly ajar. How, he wonders, could you not push it open to see what lays inside?
That metaphor captures my reaction to the book perfectly. Reading BEAUTIFUL RUINS is like standing in front of a slightly open door, pushing it slowly open, and watching in awe as a whole world unfolds before you. And it's also like gazing into the eyes of someone you are infatuated and mesmerized by, engaging that person in conversation, and listening in enthralled horror and delight as her mind is slowly revealed.
Recent books I would compare this too, for the above quality and for encapsulating enormous and seemingly unwieldy stories in compact and entertaining packages, include Eugenides' MIDDLESEX, and Jonathan Evison's WEST OF HERE. I may even prefer this book to those two, because Walter has such a gift for providing deep insight into characters by sharing their novels, memoirs, plays, pitches, songs, etc. Is there any better way to know a character's heart than through the lens of the art they produce? (It does seem, in retrospect, that like the party in Idaho where the climactic scenes of this novel occur, "everyone here is an artist" but it didn't bother while I was reading.)
BEAUTIFUL RUINS is the funniest book I've read since David Markson's BALLAD OF DINGUS MAGEE, and it's funny without devolving into slapstick (except perhaps for the scene where the big oaf Pelle gets shot in the foot, and a few of the Richard Burton scenes). From the first chapter to last I found myself chuckling at the cleverness of lines, usually because Walter had so concisely summed up an essential truth about a character.
It's rare that I pick up a book, see the blurbs on the back cover, and after reading it think the blurbers could have reached a bit higher. Not that they don't reach high here--Richard Russo calls it a masterpiece, for example. It's just that BEAUTIFUL RUINS is so clearly a masterpiece that I would have expected the back cover to proclaim it "the best book of this or any decade" or something. I'm not ready to go there, but this is my favorite book published so far in 2012.
I received this book as part of a goodreads firstreads giveaway.