Jess Walter’s most recent novel is Beautiful Ruins, and his title aptly describes all of the exquisite moments in the somewhat broken lives of his characters. The novel opens in Porto Vergogna, a tiny cliffside village too small even to be included in the nearby Cinque Terre, the five beautiful villages on the Ligurian Sea that are the favored destination of travelers who want remoteness on the Italian Riviera. A beautiful American actress arrives by boat, sent away from the set of Cleopatra with a cancer diagnosis. She checks in to the hotel just inherited by Pasquale Tursi, a young dreamer who hopes to lure travelers to the Hotel Adequate View with the homemade beach and cliffside tennis courts that he labors daily to build.
Flash forward to the present, where Claire, a production assistant, has been driven to desperation by the daily barrage of schlocky pitches that come to the offices of Michael Deane, a once-famous producer who has fallen on less glamorous times. She vows to quit and take a job as the archivist in a Scientologist film museum if she doesn’t hear a good pitch by the end of the week. The last two pitchmen of the week are a failed young writer who dreams of making Donner!, a film about the doomed pioneer party, and an Italian man with very little English… the now much older Pasquale Tursi.
Walter’s novel progresses through a variety of such chapters–the misadventures of a dissolute singer at the Edinburgh film festival, a chapter from an American writer’s unfinished novel based on his experiences in WWII, a scene from a community theater production in Northern Idaho, and a manic alcoholic quest with Richard Burton by boat. Through these instances, he creates a montage of the key events in these ruined but beautiful lives, a novel of moments which reveals a new surprise about the connections between seven or eight characters with each chapter.
This novel is a great choice for book groups, full of likable characters with difficult choices, poignant failures, surprising successes, and most of all, a treasure trove of “what ifs” that beg discussion. It’s a cinematic story that begs to be made into a film, although as you’ll discover if you read the book, that would be somewhat ironic. If you discover that you like this Washington State writer, there is a small stack of diverse and underappreciated books to explore after Beautiful Ruins. Try Citizen Vince, The Financial Lives of Poets, The Zero, or Walter’s new book of stories, We Live in Water.