A review of “Beautiful Ruins,” Jess Walter’s new novel.
While I often fall in love with a book I’m reading and will rave about it to friends, when it comes to writing a review, I usually find reasons not to give it five stars. But Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter’s sixth novel, was so deeply enjoyable and so wonderfully conceived and written, it deserves the celestial pentad and all the praise that’s being heaped on it by other writers and readers both. The central story in Beautiful Ruins is the unlikely one of a young Italian man living in tiny fishing hamlet clinging to the cliffs near the Cinque Terre falling in love with a beautiful American actress after she was banished there from the set of Cleopatra that was being filmed in Rome. To say why would be a spoiler. But this is no rags-to-riches romance story. From that beginning the story weaves back and forth geographically to Rome, California, Washington State and the British Isles and chronologically from World War II to the present. The story also weaves though the viewpoints of a generous handful of fully realized characters. But thanks to the artfulness of Walter’s plotting, the reader will never feel lost. Each new detail, each new scene or characters or leap across time layers upon a strong foundation. The prose is often lyrical and full of precise, memorable detail–but it seldom feels consciously “literary.” It is more Twain than Henry James. And speaking of Twain–did I mention humor? This story’s got it all. It’s one of the best, more satisfying reads I’ve had in a very long time, and I’ve personally discovered a new writer to put on my shelf of favorites.