“Beautiful Ruins” by Jess Walter is a work of fiction set deeply in reality, the stories and lives of
each character sincere but toeing the line of unbelievable. Between the multiple settings, points of view
that span decades and the dark, sometimes satirical humor, Walter created a dynamic within his story
that is unique to this novel.
Walter’s characters Dee Moray and Michael Deane worked in the film industry in 1962, Moray
as a supporting actress to the iconic Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and Deane as a publicity
executive for 20th Century Fox. They were in Italy working on a film called Cleopatra, which was
proven to be an extremely difficult film to make.
During her time in Italy, Moray was told that she had stomach cancer and she decided to lay low
in Porto Vergogna (in English: Port of Shame), where she befriended a nice, young Italian who had
just inherited his father’s hotel, Pasquale. Moray and Pasquale grew closer in their relationship, and as
secrets unfold, decisions were made that change the courses of their lives.
In present-day L.A., Claire wanted to make films; however, her job as Deane’s assistant did not
go the way she wanted it to and her love life was suffering as well. Claire was having a normal day
at work– boring, listening to terrible pitch after terrible pitch, when an old Italian and a young man
showed up at her office, one of them wanting to make a movie pitch, the other searching for her boss,
Shane, who speaks elementary Italian, translates Pasquale’s inquiries about Moray, who he hasn’t
seen since 1962. Then, he pitches his movie, an expensive, sad movie about the Donner Party, and
when Deane loved it, offered Shane $10,000 and asks him to stick around to translate for him. When
Deane meets with Pasquale, he makes a promise to find Moray and “do the right thing.”
The action bounces between present-day, Italy in the 60’s, and Dee’s life in the 70’s which sets a nice
pace and keeps interest high and pages turning.
Walter changes his point of view between the characters Moray and Deane, and also Deanes’s
young assistant Claire, Shane who fails as a novelist and tries his hand at screenwriting, a World War II
veteran and writer Alvis, and Moray’s troubled, drug-addicted son Pat.
Also included are the one chapter that “writer” Alvis ever wrote, an excerpt from Deane’s memoirs,
and a play written about Pat’s troubled past. These chapters serve as breaks from the rest of the action,
and as a way of getting to know the characters in deeper ways.
Walter pulls from other sources as well. He quotes Louis Menard’s “Talk Story” from the New
Yorker before the first chapter. It says, “[Dick] Cavett’s four great interviews with Richard Burton
were done in 1980… Burton, fifty-four at the time, and already a beautiful ruin, was mesmerizing.”
However, Burton is not the only character or aspect of the novel that is a beautiful ruin. Dee,
Pasquale, Pat, Michael, Claire, Alvis and Shane all play a part in an adventure that crosses decades and
learn that life doesn’t always go in the direction that they plan for. They are all essentially, beautiful
“Beautiful Ruins” is a contemporary look on love and loss, romance and tragedy. Wonderfully
written, Walter’s novel pulls on the heartstrings and comments on the human condition.