BEAUTIFUL RUINS by Jess Walter, Review: Captivating narrative

Review Summary: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter is a modern masterpiece that deserves to become a classic — his prose and characterisation exquisite and Edoardo Ballerini’s narration of the audiobook captivating.

Beautiful Ruins Synopsis

Beautiful Ruins Jess Walter

The story begins in 1962. On a rocky patch of the sun-drenched Italian coastline, a young innkeeper, chest-deep in daydreams, looks out over the incandescent waters of the Ligurian Sea and spies an apparition: a tall, thin woman, a vision in white, approaching him on a boat. She is an actress, he soon learns, an American starlet, and she is dying.

And the story begins again today, half a world away, when an elderly Italian man shows up on a movie studio’s back lot—searching for the mysterious woman he last saw at his hotel decades earlier.

What unfolds is a dazzling, yet deeply human, roller coaster of a novel, spanning fifty years and nearly as many lives.

From the lavish set of Cleopatra to the shabby revelry of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Walter introduces us to the tangled lives of a dozen unforgettable characters: the starstruck Italian innkeeper and his long-lost love; the heroically preserved producer who once brought them together and his idealistic young assistant; the army veteran turned fledgling novelist and the rakish Richard Burton himself, whose appetites set the whole story in motion—along with the husbands and wives, lovers and dreamers, superstars and losers, who populate their world in the decades that follow.

Gloriously inventive, constantly surprising, Beautiful Ruins is a story of flawed yet fascinating people, navigating the rocky shores of their lives while clinging to their improbable dreams. 

Genre: Drama, Romance, Historical, Mystery, Literature

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I thoroughly enjoyed Jess Walter’s previous novel, The Financial Lives of the Poets. It was engaging, satirical and poignant. His latest novel, Beautiful Ruins is all that and so much more.

“A novel with pathos, piercing wit and, most important, the generous soul of a literary classic. . . . (Boston Globe)

The Boston Globe review hits on what is so special about this novel. Yes, it is thoroughly entertaining. Yes, it has an appealing intelligent humour. But it is its depth of emotion and a sense of honesty and timelessness that sets this book apart from others on the best-seller lists right now.

Scope and ambition

In the novel Beautiful Ruins Jess Walter takes a story both grand in scope and ambition and executes it flawlessly.

In an interview with The Nervous Breakdown Jess Walter explains how the story Beautiful Ruins was inspired by a trip to Italy in 1997 and his mum’s battle with stomach cancer, and how he had been developing the story ever since. The author’s deeply personal attachment to the story and its characters resonates throughout. The time the author has spent crafting this novel has certainly reaped dividends. In many instances, Walter could easily have veered into decadence or populist will, but he kept a firm hand on the wheel. Despite the cinematic grandeur and almost ethereal glow of the piece, this is no Disney movie – bad things happen to good people and life is but a series of choices we make. The exploration of honesty both with others and with ourselves is powerful.

Modern masterpiece

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter is a modern masterpiece that deserves to become a classic.

Walter’s prose is exquisite and Edoardo Ballerini’s narration of the audiobook utterly captivating (listen to an audio sample). This is a story made up of numerous stories across countries, times and places. There are even stories told by the characters within their stories – a novel framework, when executed as well as Jess Walter has, that I enjoy immensely. Despite its obvious literary merits, this novel’s modernity equates to accessibility.

Beautiful Ruins is filled with a cast of achingly real characters that Walter presents to us through a stark and honest lens. It is both sad and uplifting. Jess Walter’s novel is deserving of the praise it has received and its place already on “Best of 2012” book lists. It is an intensely moving and rewarding reading experience.

BOOK RATING: The Story 5 / 5 ; The Writing  5 / 5

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About the Author, Jess Walter

Jess Walter is the author of the national bestseller The Financial Lives of the Poets, the National Book Award finalist The Zero, the Edgar Award-winning Citizen Vince, Land of the Blind, Ruby Ridge and the New York Times Notable Book Over Tumbled Graves. He lives in Spokane, Washington, with his family. Check out his website.