Breaking down the literary forth wall and introducing real life people, especially those who have existed within living memory, into a fictional landscape can be toe-curling and jarring. No author could ever capture a well-known person exactly how all others imagine them to be and these interlopers can seem less believable than their fictional friends.
Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins (named after a description of a boozed-ravaged Richard Burton not long before he died) spin on the real-life events of the second-attempt at filming Cleopatra when rain, money and rows had moved the production from England to Italy. The film’s stars play parts in Beautiful Ruins – Elizabeth Taylor‘s role is entirely off-page, but Burton not only has a walk-on part, but is a key plot device. He makes a wobbly cameo that somewhat scars this otherwise cracking yarn, the charismatic Welshman reduced to an embarrassing drunk who’ll tell his story, or at least those bits Walter could find on Wikipedia, to the nearest minion.
Burton’s appearance is one of a few wrong turns that stop Beautiful Ruins being truly great. It’s an intelligent holiday read with literary aspirations, but it’s too timid to make that leap from beach to Booker. The plot is well crafted and compelling and when it’s in full swing it’s engrossing, but there are moments of self-consciousness, especially during the chapter where the story skips across to London. Walter, who is undoubtedly an excellent and accomplished author who writes with spirit and humour, includes some beautiful descriptions of London’s schizophrenic architecture, but his words never really catch its essence. For all his perfectly placed adjectives, Walter never found its heart. The same can be said for his Richard Burton moment – the actor’s appearance felt like a novel hijack by a Burton-impersonator.
The odd stumbles aside, Beautiful Ruins is a charming book that sweeps across continents and decades, with, love, in its many guises, fuelling its journey. The novel opens in 1962 in a scraggy Italian village on the Lingurian coast that’s frozen in time. Young, blue-eyed Italian hotelier Pasquale Tursi watches as one of the island’s gnarly old fisherman deliver a beautiful, and apparently dying, American actress called Dee Moray onto his island and into his life. Her initial diagnoses turns out to be wrong; she doesn’t have cancer, but the real reason for her exile on this funny little cliff-face of Italy has just as wide-reaching an impact on Dee, and those around her.
Along the way we’re taken to contemporary Hollywood, Idaho, 1970s Seattle, 21st century London and Edinburgh and 1940s war-torn Italy. We’re introduced to a cast of characters that includes coke addicts, porn addicts, war veterans, ruthless Hollywood producers, failed rock stars, Italian fisherman and legendary film stars. Obviously more at home in California and Italy, Walter conjurers up these worlds wonderfully; you can see the red tinged horizon as the sun sets over the Ligurian Sea, feel the sea salt in your hair, taste LA’s pollution in your lungs and feel Hollywood’s relentless energy.
It’s romantic – borderline sentimental – warm and funny. The characters are varied and well-drawn, especially the ‘bad guy’, producer Michael Deane whose plastic face and ruthlessness have made him rich, but who’s now a failure and an embarrassment in the town that made him big. He’s psychopathic lack of compassion and empathy makes him hugely entertaining, especially next to the rather feeble Dee Moray (a Lidl Marilyn Monroe) and love-sick Pasquale.
Beautiful Ruins may not be the book it could have been, but it’s an engaging, satisfying tale of love and lost, romance and regret.
by Suzanne Elliott