Beautiful Ruins (Review)


Beautiful Ruins
Jess Walter, 2012
352 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
August 2012
Life in this stunning new novel, set primarily in Hollywood and Italy, is made up of moments of startling clarity—moments capable of changing lives.

The difficulty is in recognizing those moments, holding on to them, and making them matter. Which is what Jess Walters is so very good at showing—how hard his characters find it to pin down the fleeting randomness of life.

The seven main characters of this very funny, gripping novel—everyone from a Hollywood mogul to an young Italian villager—are wonderfully human and, thus, deeply flawed. They're beautiful ruins of what they might have been. At the same time, they possess an uncanny degree of self-awareness: they know they're flawed. The story revolves around their attempts to right the wrongs they've done to themselves and others. As one character says with exquisite simplicity, "I want to do good now."

The novel begins in Italy during the 1962 filming of Cleopatra. The film and its stars, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, form the story's backdrop. Taylor and Burton aren't so much movie stars as they are Greek Gods—"pure talent and charisma...perfect beings." Their off-camera affair, tempestuous and larger-than-life, sets the novel in motion. The fallout from their love story spills over into the lives of the novel's characters and sets each on a course of action for the next 50 years.

When we reach Hollywood in the present day, the great enterprise of epic filmmaking is over. The passionate grandeur of Liz and Dick has passed. Our current artistic culture seems degraded and paltry, with Hollywood having reduced itself to a thin gruel of tv reality shows...the one in this novel hilariously called "Hookbook," a blend of social media and TV.

We wonder: is it possible to conceive of anything on a grand scale ever again— own dreams? Or have we fallen into irrelevance and drunkenness like poor Richard Burton, himself the original "Beautiful Ruin" of the title?

Jess Walters seems to suggest that the path to grandiosity is the path to ruin. What matters is the quotidian, the living out of our small lives, day by day, with integrity and honor. This is what ultimately creates meaning—like Sisyphus forever rolling his rock uphill...and like Pasquale in the novel's opening, stacking his rocks to hold back the sea. In the end, those small efforts, futile or not, might actually lend us grandeur.

See our Reading Guide for Beautiful Ruins.

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