Claire Silver is ambitious, driven, and idealistic. She has her dream job. But she’s not sure that she wants it any longer because her boss, legendary Hollywood producer Michael Deane, has not produced any films in a very long time. He has managed to score a hit with a reality television program, but Claire is mulling over an opportunity to leave her artistic mark on the world by accepting a job with a film museum.
Would-be screen writers pitch their ideas to Michael and Shane Wheeler has come to Hollywood to pitch his last chance — Donner! It is a maudlin story about a man determined to summon help and save his family, stranded in 1846 atop the Donner Summit by unseasonable storms that prevent the wagon train they are part of from crossing into California. Shane has failed at his marriage and his attempt to be a serious writer and is banking on his idea launching his career and redeeming him.
But another, older man has come to see Michael, as well. He is quite elderly and speaks little English. Pasquale Tursi has traveled from Italy bearing the business card that Michael gave him when they last saw each other in 1962. In those days, Michael’s career was in its infancy. He was working as a publicist for Twentieth Century Fox and determined to make a name for himself by preventing Cleopatra, then filming in Italy, from spiraling further over budget and out of control because of the personal dramas of its stars. But Pasquale is interested only in learning the fate of the beautiful blonde supporting actress who spend three remarkable days at his inn. Michael assured Pasquale that if he ever needed anything, he could call on Michael. And fifty years later, Pasquale seeks answers and expects Michael to honor his promise.
Beautiful Ruins is a beautifully construted story about the way in which human lives intersect and diverge, and the impact people have on each other, often without any awareness of how deeply one’s actions have affected someone else. It is an inventive, frequently hilarious, fully entertaining story spanning fifty years that incorporates actual pop culture events and personalities into a tender story about redemption, second chances, finding the courage to do the right thing, and fate.
At the heart of the story is Pasquale, the young man who takes over the running of his parent’s inn on the coast of Italy following his father’s death. It is 1962 and Pasquale is determined to upgrade the inn in order to compete with the more luxurious accommodations available to tourists in the larger, neighboring villages. Pasquale is in love with the beautiful Amadea, but when the beautiful young actress arrives, he is immediately taken in by her vulnerability and seemingly tragic circumstances. During the three days that she is Pasquale’s guest, Dee touches his heart and reveals much to him about his own life circumstances. Pasquale’s encounter with the young, brash, and driven Michael Deane, as well as one of the biggest stars in the world who is in Italy filming Cleopatra causes him to examine his own choices and reevaluate what is most important to him.
The action alternates between 1962 Italy and current day Hollywood as Claire ponders her own future — professionally and personally. As she contemplates leaving what was once her dream job with Michael, she also considers breaking up with Daryl, who has a serious addiction to pornography and, unlike Claire, no discernible professional aspirations. Can the physical attraction Claire still feels for Daryl, coupled with the comfort of familiarity, sustain their relationship?
Walter employs a variety of writing styles to tell the sprawling tale, including screenplays, chapters from Michael’s book, and even Shane’s elaborate recitation of Donner! The technique is engrossing and highly effective, as is his inclusion of numerous supporting players, among them Pasquale’s fisherman neighbors, mother, and aunt, as well as Alvis Bender, the writer who returns each year to Pasquale’s inn to work on his novel, but manages to draft only a single chapter. And along with Pasquale, the story focuses upon Debra “Dee Moray” Bender, the naive young actress for whom a bit part in Cleopatra is her big break. When her life intersects with that of one of the film’s stars, fate alters her trajectory in far-reaching, profound ways that have repercussions for all involved.
Beautiful Ruins is, just like real life, both fanciful and cynical, practical and outlandish, pragmatic and romantic, hopeless and infinitely hopeful. It is full of unseen plot twists and sympathetic, but offbeat characters. It is a perfect summer read — frothy and silly, but deceptively ironic and poignant. It is one of my favorite books so far this year. This was my first experience reading Jess Walter’s work, but it was so delightful that I plan to read his five previous novels.