I made it halfway through The Beautiful Ruins without being sure I liked the book. It tells a very nonlinear story, whose chapters jump back and forth in time and focus on different characters. Normally, that doesn’t bother me, but I was exceptionally tired and distracted when I began reading this novel, and I had been looking for something less demanding. Yet, the story pulled me in anyway.
The many characters in this narrative include Pasquale Tursi, who in 1962 is the twenty-something Italian proprietor of a bare-bones inn in an inconsequential coastal fishing village. He dreams of building creating a beach before his hotel and a tennis court up in the cliff wall to attract American tourists.
Dee Moray is a beautiful American actress who has a bit part in the ill-fated film Cleopatra. She has come to Pasquale’s inn to wait for her lover because she thinks she is dying.
Michael Deane is a producer on that film. We see him again fifty years later at the end of his career, which has degenerated into the production of meaningless reality shows.
His present-day assistant Clare left academia to try a shot at the movie business. She’s made a deal with fate: either she finds one great pitch by the end of the week or she’s leaving to for a more serious job. She’s also trying to decide whether to leave her boyfriend, the gorgeous but vacuous, porn-addicted Daryl.
Another episode of the novel presents a chapter of a work-in-progress (written over the span of decades) by Alvis Bender, who wanted to write a novel about his experiences in Italy during World War II, but who can’t seem to stop drinking long enough to do so.
And then there’s Pat Bender, a punk rock musician with an electrifying stage presence but a talent for hurting himself and the people he loves, and Shane Wheeler, a man who thinks he can redeem his life by pitching a movie based on the doomed Donner Party.
Amazingly, all these disparate stories are connected. They coalesce in the last half of the book in a way that not only makes sense, but is moving and redemptive. I found it a stunning tour de force. Beautiful Ruins was one of the pleasanter reading surprises I’ve had in a long time.