Jess Walter begins his novel in a tiny, Italian fishing village in the 1960s, where a young innkeeper is trying to turn Porto Vergogna into a tourist destination; and then one day a dying, American actress comes ashore. Cut to the modern day struggles of a young, Hollywood producer’s assistant, disallusioned by the state of the film industry and her love life. Then hop to a failed writer trying his hand at screenplays and preparing to pitch his first movie. Walter continues to lead the reader through time and various characters’ lives, which inevitably become entwined through the desire to find love, purpose, and passion in a reality of fractured dreams.
Beautiful Ruins was one of those books that kept popping up on my radar. It appeared on several lists of new and noteworthy fiction. There’s barely room on the back cover for a synopsis due to all the blurbs telling potential readers how amazing this book is:
And if that weren’t enough, there are five pages of “Praise” for the book prefacing the title page. So I bought it. I figured, it can’t be bad, right? Plus, the cover sparkled and featured a colorful, seaside town that I would very much like to visit.
I was right: it wasn’t bad. I will even say it was good, but did I love it? No, I did not. I am usually a sucker for shifting perspectives, so it surprised me when I found myself thinking that this novel offered too many points of view. I couldn’t care about them all. Reading, then, became an observation of Walter’s writing style, rather than engagement in an enhanced narrative. Likewise, it was too structured, too neatly orchestrated in the way it brought each story to a conclusive end. I’m sure many cooed over the way there were no extraneous details, as Walter had clearly plotted Beautiful Ruins down to its final question mark; however, this very thing left me feeling unsatisfied with the book’s ending. I don’t mind having questions as a novel finishes. In fact, I enjoy wondering what things meant or what happened to the characters. Beautiful Ruins left me with nothing to ponder. As I read, I was reminded of Stephen King’s advice concerning plotting in his guide, On Writing:
“…I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible….The story which results from it [plotting] is apt to feel artificial and labored.” (163-4)
The first time I read this section of his book, I found it a bit harsh. Personally, I think a well-structured plot is crucial to a good book; however the plot’s construction should not overshadow the story or the characters within its pages. While I wouldn’t call Walter’s writing labored, something about how precisely interwoven his storylines were didn’t ring true; it was as if he was pleased with how seamlessly he could make them all work together and wanted to make sure the reader recognized his abilities as a writer. I would have preferred a few jagged edges or holes, to be completely honest. This flaunting of technique is where artificiality sneaks in.
That said, I must give Walter credit for offering up some fine writing in this novel. The different voices were clear and unique and there were genuine moments of beauty scattered throughout the book. Of the seven storylines and four added narrative formats (book, screenplay, play, memoir) that comprise Beautiful Ruins, there was one story I sincerely cared about: that of Pasquale Tursi, the Italian innkeeper. I read for his story alone, putting up with the rest so I could make it back to Pasquale, who never failed to charm me with his nobility and his daydreams. The book opens with him attempting to build a beach and an impossible, cliffside tennis court in order to attract tourists, so that they might fill his hotel, The Hotel Adequate View:
“Chest-deep in the cold Ligurian Sea, Pasquale was tossing rocks the size of cats in an attempt to fortify the breakwater, to keep the waves from hauling away his little mound of construction sand. Pasquale’s ‘beach’ was only as wide as two fishing boats, and the ground beneath his dusting of sand was scalloped rock, but it was the closest thing to a flat piece of shoreline in the entire village…” (1).
For me, Pasquale was the heart of the novel, and his story was written with such tenderness that I couldn’t help but wonder if it was Walter’s favorite, too. In the end, I can understand the merits of Beautiful Ruins but cannot join the ranks of its adoring fans, Pasquale Tursi excepted. I deem this book a nice summer read that offers substance and solid writing, but is ultimately too contrived for my taste.