Beautiful Ruins (Walter)

Beautiful Ruins
Jess Walter, 2012
352 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780061928178

The story begins in 1962. On a rocky patch of the sun-drenched Italian coastline, a young innkeeper, chest-deep in daydreams, looks out over the incandescent waters of the Ligurian Sea and spies an apparition: a tall, thin woman, a vision in white, approaching him on a boat. She is an actress, he soon learns, an American starlet, and she is dying.

And the story begins again today, half a world away, when an elderly Italian man shows up on a movie studio's back lot—searching for the mysterious woman he last saw at his hotel decades earlier.

What unfolds is a dazzling, yet deeply human, roller coaster of a novel, spanning fifty years and nearly as many lives. From the lavish set of Cleopatra to the shabby revelry of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Walter introduces us to the tangled lives of a dozen unforgettable characters: the starstruck Italian innkeeper and his long-lost love; the heroically preserved producer who once brought them together and his idealistic young assistant; the army veteran turned fledgling novelist and the rakish Richard Burton himself, whose appetites set the whole story in motion—along with the husbands and wives, lovers and dreamers, superstars and losers, who populate their world in the decades that follow.

Gloriously inventive, constantly surprising, Beautiful Ruins is a story of flawed yet fascinating people, navigating the rocky shores of their lives while clinging to their improbable dreams. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—July 20, 1965
Raised—Spokane, Washington, USA
Education—Eastern Washington University
Currently—Spokane Washington

Jess Walter is an American author of six novels—Over Tumbled Graves (2001), The Land of the Blind (2003), Citizen Vince (2005), The Zero (2006), The Financial Lives of the Poets (2009), and Beautiful Ruins (2012). His work has been published in fifteen countries and translated into thirteen languages.

Walter is also a career journalist, whose work has appeared in Newsweek, Washington Post and Boston Globe. As a reporter he covered the Randy Weaver/Ruby Ridge case for the Spokane Spokesman-Review newspaper and authored a book about the case, Every Knee Shall Bow (revised title, Ruby Ridge). He also writes short stories, essays and screenplays and was the co-author of Christopher Darden’s 1996 bestseller In Contempt. His 2006 novel The Zero was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Walter lives with his wife Anne and children, Brooklyn, Ava and Alec in his childhood home of Spokane, Washington. He is an alumnus of Eastern Washington University. (From Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews
As with any story that relies on scrambled chronology, it's worth wondering how Beautiful Ruins would work as a straightforward narrative. Not as well. Moments of confusion would vanish, but so would the magic. Mr. Walter…has always been more intuitive than linear, a believer in capricious destiny with a fine, freewheeling sense of humor. The deeply romantic heart of Beautiful Ruins is better expressed by constant circling than it would by any head-on approach.
Janet Maslin - New York Times

A high-wire feat of bravura storytelling.... You’re going to love this book…. The surprising and witty novel of social criticism that flows away from its lush, romantic opening offers so much more than just entertainment...stirs the heart and amuses as it also rescues us from the all too human pain that is the motor of this complex and ever-evolving novel … Walter is a talented and original writer.
Helen Schulman - New York Book Review

Weds the grand dramatic impulses of the cinematic blockbuster to the psychological interiority of high literary art. The result is a page-turner that doubles as an elegant meditation on fame, desire, duty, and fate.... Walter has planted himself firmly in the first rank of American authors. He has crafted a novel with pathos, piercing wit and, most important, the generous soul of a literary classic.... Beautiful Ruins will endure.
Steve Almond - Boston Globe

A literary miracle like Beautiful Ruins appears, and once again I'm a believer...a sweeping stunner of a narrative…the entire novel is a kaleidoscopic collection of 'beautiful ruins,' both architectural and human. This novel is a standout not just because of the inventiveness of its plot, but also because of its language.
Maureen Corrigan - NPR Fresh Air

A lyrical, heartbreaking and funny novel (that) ends with a 12-page bolt of brilliance, a perceptive, moving and altogether superb piece of writing. Walter closes the deal with such command that you begin to wonder why up till now he’s not often been mentioned as one of the best novelists around. Beautiful Ruins might just correct that oversight.
Kevin Canfield - Kansas City Star

Jess Walter has already proven that he’s one of our great comic writers (Financial Lives of the Poets), a cerebral postmodernist (The Zero) and a savvy plotter of thrillers (Citizen Vince). Now he has his masterpiece, Beautiful Ruins, an interlocking, continent-hopping, decade-spanning novel with heart and pathos to burn, all big dreams, lost loves, deep longings and damn near perfect.
David Daley - Salon

Hollywood operators and creative washouts collide across five decades and two continents in a brilliant, madcap meditation on fate.... A theme that bubbles under the story is the variety of ways real life energizes great art—Walter intersperses excerpts from his characters' plays, memoirs, film treatments and novels to show how their pasts inform their best work. Unlikely coincidences abound, but they feel less like plot contrivances than ways to serve a broader theme about how the unlikely, unplanned moments in our lives are the most meaningful ones. And simply put, Walter's prose is a joy—funny, brash, witty and rich with ironic twists. He's taken all of the tricks of the postmodern novel and scoured out the cynicism, making for a novel that's life-affirming but never saccharine. A superb romp.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for Beautiful Ruins:

1. One of Jess Walter's concerns in Beautiful Ruins is how real life intersects and influences art. Talk about the numerous ways that idea plays out in the novel.

2. This is a work of social satire, skewering much in American culture. What are the many targets the author turns his satirical eye on? Is his aim accurate, fair, unfair?

3. Much has been made of the novel's humor? What do you find funny? Hotel Adequate View? Anything else?

4. The book's opening is reminiscent of a lush, epic romantic film—the beautiful dying Dee Moray steps off the boat and into Pasquale's heart. Although the book veers off new directions, is it still a love story? What kinds of love are presented in the novel? What, ultimately, does the novel have to say about love?

5. In what ways does Pat Bender resemble his biological father? Are genes destiny? Had you been Dee (or Debra), his mother, would you have told him who his father was?

6. The book's timeline, locales, different voices and unusual text treatments (Hollywood film pitch, biography, unfinished novel, how-to book) are jumbled. Did you find it confusing, hard to follow, irritating? Or was the variety intriguing? What might the author be hoping to achieve by scrambling everything up? How would the book be different if it were told in chronological order with a straightforward narrator?

7. Talk about contrast between the grand Hollywood projects of the past, like Cleopatra, and the reality show that Michael Deane and Claire are producing. What does it say about our current culture or collective imaginative life? Does Jess Walter suggest a solution to what he is criticizing?

8. What did you think, initially, of Shane's Donner Party pitch to Michael Deane? Did you agree with Michael...or laugh with Claire?

9. Michael Deane says his great epiphany was "People want what they want." What does he mean? Do you agree with him? How did that revelation shape his career?

10. In addition to Michael Deane (in Question 9), each character has a powerful revelation in which they see themselves as they truly are and see the nature of life. What are the revelations of the other characters...and how do they shape their lives?

11. What is the significance of the novel's title? (It was first used by a journalist to describe Richard Burton many years after his marriage to Taylor.) Who else, or what, are the "beautiful ruins"?

12. Of the seven main characters, which is your favorite? Least favorite (don't all say Michael Deane)?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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