April 1962, Porto Vergogna, a tiny village straggling up the cliff in the least famous of the Cinque Terre resorts. In the sun-drenched waters, Pasquale Tursi is trying to make the best of his inheritance in the hospitality industry by means of Sisyphean tasks: constructing a beach that won’t get washed away, and cutting a tennis court out of the cliff, blissfully oblivious to the fate of the tennis balls. But here he is, up to his chest in water, carrying rocks into the waves, when he sees a small boat puttering its way up to the landing stage. In it, the most beautiful woman he has ever met, tall, blonde, a goddess, and miraculously headed towards his hotel. She is Dee Moray, an American actress who has been hastily smuggled off the set of the ill-fated film, Cleopatra, and brought to this isolated place, supposedly to die. Pasquale adds a third hopeless task to his already ambitious schedule: he will love this woman silently and loyally for the rest of his life.
Hollywood, California in the present day. Claire Silver is a former film studies graduate whose dream job working with legendary producer, Michael Deane is coming apart in her hands. Claire loves film, it’s her passion, and so to be forced to see what it has come to in these times, the relentless onslaught of zombie-vampire-cowboy mash-ups, interspersed with sordid reality shows of unbelievable banality, has been almost enough to put her off the medium altogether. She is on the point of accepting a job as curator of a film museum, but has made a deal with fate. She’ll stick with Michael if this Friday – her day for hearing back-to-back pitches – one good idea walks through the door. Fate has its own ideas about cutting deals. Shane Wheeler, a young writer who has managed to turn optimism into a sort of rocket fuel, will shortly be stirring up Claire’s world with what may be the worst pitch in cinema history. And tangled up in this meeting will be a polite, elderly Italian gentleman, who has come for a final reckoning with Michael Deane over the fate of a woman he fell in love with fifty years ago.
Jess Walter’s fabulous novel, Beautiful Ruins, offers these two points of lift-off – the end of the story and its forgotten beginnings, and the narrative will weave and zig-zag back and forth over the intervening decades, gradually revealing the story of his characters and all that has happened in their lives. We are taken to an amazing array of vividly etched locations – Edinburgh and the fringe festival to follow the fortunes of a washed-up alcoholic singing comedy songs to his own guitar accompaniment who just happens to be Dee Moray’s son; to Rome, where the filming of Cleopatra is draining dollars like a sinkhole and Michael Deane has been sent to limit the publicity damage caused by Burton and Taylor’s volatile affair; and to Seattle, where the would-be writer, Alvis Bender, remembers the days spent not writing but drinking in a small Italian coastal resort, and the strange circumstances that led the only short story he ever wrote to win him the unexpected prize of a beautiful wife.
Whilst this is fundamentally a story about passion in its many forms, it is also a clever and sensitive disquisition on the art of telling stories. Woven into the narrative action we find the poignant short story that Alvis wrote, Shane’s mind-blowing film pitch, and the first chapter of Michael Deane’s autobiography, a narrative so dreadfully that it was eventually salvaged by turning it into a self-help book. But it’s not just about form. Jess Walter is brilliant on the way that stories tunnel their way insidiously into our expectations for life, embodied by Shane and
his generation’s profound belief in secular episodic providence, the idea – honed by decades of entertainment – that after thirty or sixty or one hundred and twenty minutes of complications, things generally work out okay.’
and yet also, touchingly, on Pasquale’s long and complicated quest to find out the fate of his greatest romance:
Technology may have shrunk the epic journey to a couple of short car rides and regional jet lag… but true quests aren’t measured in time and distance anyway, so much as in hope. There are only two good outcomes for a quest like this, the hope of the serendipitous savant – sail for Asia and stumble on America – and the hope of scarecrows and tin men: that you find out you had the thing you sought all along.’
Art and life negotiate, compromise and have a lot of fun with one another in this wonderfully entertaining and heartfelt book. What can I say? I loved it. Straight onto my best of the year list.