I could pretend that there was some high literary motive behind my choice to read Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins, but the fact is that when I saw that the story opened in a tiny village on the Ligurian coast of Italy I couldn't resist. I was there in May and was happy for a chance to revisit that beautiful setting. And the first chapter pulled me right in. In the tiny (imaginary) village of Porto Vergogna, at the south end of Cinque Terre, a handsome, hunky, bare-chested, aqua-eyed Italian named Pasquale watches the arrival of a small boat carrying a beautiful blonde American actress. She has come to this remote cliff-side village to stay at its only pensione, the Hotel Adequate View, run by Pasquale's family. The year is 1962 and the actress has fled from Rome, where she had a small part in the infamous movie “Cleopatra” with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, because she has been told that she is dying.
Chapter 2 leaps forward nearly fifty years, to the Hollywood office of legendary film producer Michael Deane, where his assistant Claire is listening to a young man deliver possibly the worst movie pitch ever (the film's title “Donner!” tells you all you need to know), at the same time as she tries to sort out the motives of an old Italian man clutching a wrinkled, stained business card with Michael Deane's name on it.
The story continues to leap back and forward in time, to locations as disparate as Edinburgh, Seattle, Florence and even Sand Point, Idaho. On one level it's a witty, entertaining story that exposes the seamy side of Hollywood. But it's also a meditation on the price of fame, the power of art and the endurance of love. It's a good choice for a beach read, even if your beach isn't in Italy.