As much as I love to read, I find that I am often plagued with an inability to choose a book with a riveting blurb and a bland cover over an artfully bound volume with a decent plot. Unfortunately, this often leads to disappointment in the books I choose to buy. However, every so often, I strike gold and end up purchasing a book that boasts both an aesthetically pleasing cover and engaging plot. I will admit that I purchased Jess Walter’s latest novel, Beautiful Ruins, on a whim, based largely on the vibrant colors and loopy script on the cover, though I told friends that I was reading it because it was given a glowing review by the New York Times.
From the first page, I knew that judging Beautiful Ruins by its cover was a good decision. The book takes place between a small coastal town in Italy in 1962, present day Hollywood, Seattle in the 1980s and present day United Kingdom. Though this sounds like a recipe for a clumsy narrative, it actually proved one of the most cohesive stories I have read in a while. Perhaps it worked because Walter did not rely purely on narrative to tell the story: characters in the book include a playwright, a Hollywood producer and a failed author, and all of their “work” is interspersed between chapters.
The story, while seamless and easy to understand, is difficult to explain. It begins when Dee Moray, an American extra in a big-budget film, is sent to a small, coastal town in Southern Italy—much to the shock of Pasquale, the young owner of the sole hotel in the rough and tumble town—and the novel is built upon this relationship and the people that come between Pasquale and Dee. Beautiful Ruins, however, is not a textbook love story. Walter manages to render the novel equal parts tragic and comical, and he capably juxtaposes elements of traditional and contemporary literature. He inserts thought-provoking philosophical platitudes at random throughout the novel, but not to the extent that they seem preachy and annoying. I could write about the novel for days, but nothing can do it proper justice. I began the book as a simple distraction over fall break, expecting it to be just another sleepy yet pleasant narrative about a coastal town, but was immediately proven wrong. Walter’s incredible skill as a writer is apparent in his capability to produce a page-turning novel despite it’s lack of mystery and suspense. Almost from the beginning, you know what will happen at the end, but you need to find out how Walter will tell the story. The contents of Beautiful Ruins exceeded my exterior-based expectations to an exponential degree.