Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

Love in Technicolor

Alexander Matthews reviews Jess Walter's enchanting new novel, Beautiful Ruins

BY ALEXANDER MATTHEWS

This is a beach read – literally. In the opening paragraphs of Beautiful Ruins, young Pasquale Tursi, an innkeeper in a tiny, forgotten hamlet perched on the Ligurian coast, is trying to fortify the breakwater protecting his little manmade beach.  As he works, a boat bringing an American starlet glides into the bay.  She has come to stay. And, although her physical presence will only be for a few short days, her presence will linger in this place for decades to come.

Summarising plots can be tricky. With this book, Walter makes it even harder, and I’m tempted not to even try. Let me say this, though: in addition to an American starlet and an innkeeper who meet briefly in 1962, there is also a craven, baby-faced movie producer in contemporary LA (only a few pages distant from 1962). And his dreamy assistant. And a man who has written screenplay outline for a movie about the Donner Party.  There is also a lazy, hopeful, slightly hopeless US veteran – here we see him in ’60s Seattle; oh, and there, too, in his room at an Italian inn, when he’s struggling to type his first, only novel. And then there is Richard Burton. Yes, old Dick, with his boozy charm, lolls across the pages with a slurry wink.

What does this line-up tell you? That Walter shouldn’t get away with this book. He jumps between continents and decades, flitting between characters and their concerns like a magpie with ADD. In addition to conventional narrative prose, he includes the draft chapter of a character’s unpublished autobiography, a screenplay sketch, the first pages of a draft novel, and a play script. He is unashamedly sentimental – this is a love story, spanning, improbably, fifty years.

Yes, this book should be a mess: chaotic and mushy. But it isn’t. Walter pulls it off sublimely. The warmth and romance never becomes curdled or cloying. The jumps between scenes – the irrigated hush of early morning LA, the manic set of Cleopatra in Rome – never becomes too confusing.

This is a master at work – leading us gently and wryly through the Hollywood milieu, then and now. It is both a send-up and a tribute to the cinematic dream factory. The prose is gorgeously written. Walter has a clear, confident grasp of character, ably striking the balance between despicable and endearing in his etching of the producer Michael Deane, for example.

Beautiful Ruins defies easy distillation. Read it, though. It is fun, ridiculously indulgent, intelligent and inspiring. For once let’s give cynicism a break. It’s time to find a stripy lounger and sink into this wonderful, surreal world where life, love and the imagination dance quite wonderfully in sync.

Beautiful Ruins is published by Penguin. Available from Kalahari.

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