As I turned to the last page of Beautiful Ruins, I found myself wishing desperately that I could go back in time to start it over. And it’s no wonder. It’s a substantive read that is at once fun and light, romantic and poignant, thanks in all parts to author Jess Walter’s artful story telling. Using the backdrop of disparate times and places, Walter weaves the lives of the novel’s characters — romantic souls that include classic movie stars (Richard Burton and Liz Taylor) and (fictional) modern day screenwriters — together skillfully in a testament to their few degrees of separation.
At once, you’ll find yourself transported back in time (the 1960s) to Porto Vergogna (Port of Shame), a tiny fishing village nestled into Italy’s Levanto Coast, where the young and ever-optimistic Pasquele Tursi awaits his newest guest at his in-decline hostel, Hotel Adequate View. But before long, the story (temporarily) fast forwards to present-day Hollywood. Here the also young, but-almost-jaded, Claire struggles with the possibility that her dream to become a screenwriter will not come true. “Where do the twain (and many others) meet?” you’ll likely wonder. Keep turning the pages, and you’ll find out. But do it as slowly as you can.
Beautiful Ruin‘s Porto Vergogna and Hotel Adequate View may have been figments of Jess Walter’s imagination, but if you‘ve been to this part of Italy, you can easily conjure this village in your mind’s eye as you read along. So much so it brought me back to my visit to the idyllic Cinque Terre, the likely inspiration for Porto Vergogna. I was easily transported from my book-reading surroundings of another idyllic coastal village, Anna Maria Island, Florida. Settled into a beach chair underneath an umbrella shading me from the day’s sunny blue sky, my toes happily burrowed into the sugar white sands with the emerald waters gently lapping against the shore spread out before me, I was suddenly caught between two places and two times.
Even though it’s been nearly 10 years since my visit, there is something indelible about this part of the wonderfully rugged Italian Rivera and the five “lands” carved into the coastal cliffs. My friend and I drove there from Venice. As we neared the coast and cautiously wended our way along the twists and turns of the narrow road to Corniglia, the “middle” land that would serve as our home base, the feeling that we had entered another time that was slower and more vibrant was palpable. While our drive along the coast some “40 years” later was not as decadent, shall we say, as Burton’s and Tursi’s when they set off on an “errand” (nor did we have a convertible), because of it I felt as if I were there with them. Even if it meant being squinched into a tiny back seat. Walter’s words alone could have been enough to place me there, but with my added perspective, his figments became real, making the book even more enjoyable — and a chance to revisit a place in time.