Lost opportunities, found art, stories both true and false—these ideas bind the disparate threads of Jess Walter’s new novel, Beautiful Ruins. Walter has always been a versatile writer. His 2005 novel, Citizen Vince, put an ex-criminal in witness protection in glamourless Spokane, Washington (where the author lives). The Zero, a 2006 National Book Award finalist, was a darkly inventive, almost surreal look at a cop’s unraveling after 9/11. And in 2009 Walter satirized the recession-era struggle toward the American Dream in The Financial Lives of the Poets. So, even if we call this novel a romance, anyone who knows Walter knows it’s more complicated than that.
For one thing, the book spans 50 years and two continents. It opens in 1962 in a small Italian fishing village. A tragically beautiful Hollywood actress arrives for a stay at the Hotel Adequate View, Pasquale Tursi’s humble pensione. The actress has cancer; she’s here to meet her lover, who will take her to a specialist in Switzerland. This, at any rate, is the story Tursi has been told. The actress’ stay is brief but electrifying, utterly transforming his life.
Meanwhile, in modern-day Hollywood, a young producer’s assistant despairs over the cynical deals her boss has been making. She’s on the verge of quitting her job when a remarkable story wanders into her office. Also meanwhile, in Edinburgh, a 40-something musician risks one last effort at touring, blows it completely and calls his aging mother for rescue.
These stories and others soon reveal themselves to be one big story, a web of human weaknesses and noble sacrifice. Each character wears a facade that hides his or her true self; what drives the story is when and how those false fronts crumble. As ever, some of these folks are deeply sympathetic and some are exasperating. But, importantly, they (nearly) all learn and change and grow.
If Beautiful Ruins has a weak point, it’s a slightly awkward section with the actor Richard Burton (ironic how a character who’s a real person comes across as less real than the others). But generally, Walter’s control of tone and the various voices is solid. The multiple storylines culminate in a last-chapter pastiche that distills the book’s view that every story is a pitch—and it’s up to readers whether to see that as depressing, hopeful or merely human nature.