The year is 1962 and a beautiful but ill American actress shows up unexpectedly at a tiny, remote and crumbling Italian port, casting a young innkeeper immediately under her spell. We soon learn this gorgeous American is fresh from the filming of Cleopatra, starring the famous Elizabeth Taylor. Fast-forward 50 years later to present-day Hollywood where the now-elderly innkeeper finds himself still in search of this mysterious actress and lost love.
That’s the basic plot around which Jess Walter wraps Beautiful Ruins, a superb new book about the often-futile search for love, stardom and wealth. It’s a novel filled with unforgettable characters who have insatiable appetites for all the things that success brings.
Much of the charm of the novel is Walter’s ability to transport us to far-flung locations both wondrous and thrilling. It’s also a cautionary tale with some unconventional and unique methods of storytelling.
Beautiful Ruins is a keen satire of both the Hollywood dream machine and the people who inhabit it — a novel epic and cinematic in scope and emotion. Covering some 50 years and nearly 5,000 miles, the novel is sprawling and ambitious, lampooning an aging, duplicitous film agent who aspires to rule Hollywood, an actress who dreams of being the next film sensation, an aging alcoholic who believes he’s destined to write the great American novel and a young scriptwriter longing to hit it big in Tinsel Town. There’s even a hilarious cameo by a young and very drunk Richard Burton, delivering a soliloquy for the ages behind the wheel of an Alfa Romeo, speeding recklessly around Rome. Yet in the end, the only reward for these starry-eyed dreamers is bitterness and shattered ambition.
Beautiful Ruins may be the best book of 2012 as it tears away the old lies and fantasies that dominated Hollywood and the entertainment industry. Walter shows us how our obsession with beauty often blinds us and can lead us to a ruinous place. Grade: A+
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