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Book Review | ‘Beautiful Ruins’ builds sweeping drama

“Beautiful Ruins” is the Centre County Reads book pick.
“Beautiful Ruins” is the Centre County Reads book pick. Photo provided

Book: “Beautiful Ruins”

Author: Jess Walter

Publisher: Harper Perennial

Jess Walter’s “Beautiful Ruins” opens like a classical Hollywood film: A beautiful young American arrives by boat in the forgotten, eccentric town of Porto Vergogna, Italy, where the young dreamer Pasquale Tursi is heaving rocks out of the water to create a beach for his family’s vacant pensione, the unfortunately named Hotel Adequate View. Pasquale falls deeply in love with the stunning Dee Moray and deeper still with the epiphanic moment. After helping the up-and-coming Hollywood actress into her room, he imagines that “he’d somehow summoned her, he’d created this woman from old bits of cinema and books, from the lost artifacts and ruins of his dreams.”

With an opening scene like this, Walter’s sixth novel might seem like a pure homage to classic Hollywood cinema. However, “Beautiful Ruins” proves to be so much more: a braided tale with subsequent chapters jumping forward 50 years, hopscotching across America and Europe, and introducing us to characters seemingly unrelated to Dee and Pasquale until their lives intersect in the present. A fast-paced and insightful novel, “Beautiful Ruins” captures the spectacle of modern cinema, humorously critiquing its imprint on our culture today even as it celebrates its capacity for prosaic love and extraordinary joy.

In “Beautiful Ruins,” Walter cunningly re-works the history of Old Hollywood through events surrounding the making of the disastrous 1963 film, “Cleopatra.” In the present storyline, where these legacies have not been forgotten, we meet two Hollywood archetypes: the underappreciated production company assistant, Claire Silver, and the aspiring young screenwriter, Shane Wheeler, who is pitching the cannibalistic exploits of the Donner Party as an epic action romance titled “Donner!” Both Claire’s and Shane’s fates are tied to Michael Deane, a Botox-filled Hollywood power player (and scumbag), whom we soon learn was responsible several decades ago for salvaging “Cleopatra” and keeping 20th Century Fox solvent. As it turns out, Deane’s plan for saving the film hinged on sending the young Dee Moray to hide in Porto Vergogna under extremely mysterious circumstances.

The turmoil involved in the production of “Cleopatra” provides a perfect background for “Beautiful Ruins.” The various sexual, financial and media catastrophes that plagued the film echo throughout the novel’s many locales, including the movie set in Rome, contemporary Los Angeles and especially Porto Vergogna, where Pasquale’s blossoming friendship with Dee becomes the linchpin of the story. Along the way we meet a motley crew of fascinating characters, including Alvis, the aspiring American novelist; Pat, the struggling musician on tour in Ireland; and Gualfredo, the small-town Italian gangster, all of whose roles seem unclear until Walter expertly pulls them together in the final few chapters. As we follow this formidable cast through their often-hilarious struggles, we also find honest love stories.

Walter paints tender portraits of filial and parental love, simple but bountiful brotherly love, and passionate, romantic love with great skill. His incredible flexibility as a writer shines as he traverses the worlds of music and drama in a hodgepodge of literary forms: novel, screenplay and even the rejected tell-all memoir. This pastiche mocks the flaws of mass media even as it praises the lives of those touched by the industry.

Walter has published five previous novels, including the critically acclaimed “The Zero” and “The Financial Lives of The Poets.” While Walter’s other novels have tackled modern concerns (the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, and the financial crisis), the rich historical context of “Beautiful Ruins” adds a necessary dose of cultural reflection. Walter’s writing forces us to look at our modern engagement to the cinema and pop culture as well as our deeper connections to other people, places and memories.

After I finished “Beautiful Ruins,” my only wish of the novel was that I could have spent more time with its characters. Dee and Pasquale are an especially compelling pair, and after reaching the last few pages I wanted to remain with them a little longer. In their relationship, Walter articulates a sense that we’ve taken part in something larger than a film or even a book — something that can endure through the passing of time.

Centre County Reads schedule of events

Centre County Reads will roll out the red carpet to kick off the 2015 celebration of literary discussion with a free screening of “Cleopatra.” The film helped to inspire Jess Walter’s “Beautiful Ruins,” this year’s CCR book selection.

Several groups around Centre County will read and discuss “Beautiful Ruins” throughout February and March. Pick up a copy of the novel at any Centre County library and join a group discussions. All events are free and open to the public.

Film screening and red-carpet walk

• 6:30 p.m. red-carpet walk; 7 p.m. “Cleopatra” film screening

Book discussions

• 6:30 p.m. Feb. 17: Schlow Centre Region Library’s sun room


• 12:15 p.m. Feb. 18: State College Senior Center

• 6:30 p.m. Feb. 18: Centre County Library, Bellefonte

• 2 p.m. Feb. 25: Schlow Centre Region Library’s sun room

• 6 p.m. Feb. 26: Centre Hall Area Branch Library

• 1 p.m. Feb. 27: Centre County Library, Bellefonte

• 6 p.m. March 9: Holt Memorial Library, Philipsburg

Hollywood-themed roundtable discussion

• 3:30 p.m. March 5: Mann Assembly Room, Paterno Library, University Park

Reading and Q&A with author Jess Walter

• 7 p.m. March 17: HUB Auditorium, HUB-Robeson Center, University Park

“Beautiful Ruin” writing contest

• Enter your best writing on your idea of a “beautiful ruin” to win in a number of categories or a $200 grand prize. Entries for the writing contest are due by March 2.