On the Cinque Terre, there is a sixth land: a forgotten, rocky, outcrop with 12 homes, some stray cats, lots of fishermen, and one pensione: The Hotel Adequate View. Jess Walter’s book Beautiful Ruins opens here in 1962, where the young inn-keeper on this sun-drenched coast stands “chest-deep in daydreams” and looks out over the waters of the Ligurian Sea to find a fantasy come true: an American has come to stay. But not just any American, she is unusally beautiful, a Hollywood actress, and she is dying. In the second chapter the story starts again: this time it is today, in Hollywood, with an academic-turned-production assistant and an elderly Italian man who shows up on a movie studio back lot searching for an actress who he last saw in his hotel fifty years earlier.
And so, the set up for this romp, this monument to love, is established. It is not sentimental, or sappy, but it is large-hearted and ambitious in the stories of love it tells. And its openess to these experiences make it bracing and joyful to read.
Thank goodness fot the cover of the edition I receieved from Book Depository, beause if I had seen the alternative – with that patronising font – I would have snobbishly avoided this novel. The retro, cut-out-collage copy I have where its lurid colours are a nod to the era in question allowed my rigid mind to properly indulge in a book I suppose some publicists woud call chick lit and which apparently needs to be marketed to women in cartoonish, loopy font and bright, simple covers. But also, because the alternative cover makes it seem as if the beautiful ruins in question are the idyllic Italian coastal town, or as if the town itself and its sparkling waters are the main setting for our story. Neither are fully true.
The story is told through multiple sources. We aren’t just alternating back and forth between Italy 1962 and Hollywood today, the settings for the first two chapters; but also the manuscript for a chapter of an unpublished book, a scene from a son’s life in the 1980s, a play script. We skip to and fro across time, 50 years apart, earlier to during World War II, and the decades in between, using multiple sources and perspectives. The lead characters’ stories start to be told from in these indirect and it becomes an ensemble piece.
And because it weaves the story across so many decades Walter also has an opportunity to show the passages of time on these lives and relationships. It could be a Hollywood actor drinking himself to an early grave, or his contemporary now almost eighty walking around with the face of a nine-year-old Filipino; it can be the fading of a painting after years of afternoon sun, or how a small town faces the changing economy with an ageing population. And there are literal beautiful ruins about as well, left over from the Roman occupation of the Italian coastline. So time and its unavoidable changes becomes a quiet theme, reoccuring thoughout.
The book is romantic, and very funny; but and quite ridiculous at times. There is a scene, where drunk, cash-free Richard Burton is speeding along from Rome to Cinque Terre, cigarette dangling out the window, monologing to the inn-keeper with poor english in the passenger seat, tearing over to the side of the road to harrange the locals for a bottle of congac and asking the inn-keeper to pay for it, and you step back to go: hang on, is this a bit too too ridiculous? It is fabulous, just on the right side of being believable. It is fun, and smart, and because Walter so wittily evokes elements of each era, it feels genuine in its occasional almost-absurd setups.
In the end, Beautiful Ruins left me teary, because this intelligent and enjoyable and slightly ridiculous love story was so fully felt and so smartly done I was a little bereft. It was an utterly delightful, devestatingly honest, mad romp about love and the grace of all ages. It surprised me with its brains and tenderness.