Beautiful Ruins

I will basically read and fall in love with any work of fiction that has anything to do with Italy, especially Rome. Such is the case with Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, recommended to me by two of my favorite book recommenders.

Pasquale Tursi is a young man living in the tiny Cinque Terre village known as Porto Vergogna (a real place). During the summer of 1962, Pasquale is making every effort to turn his hotel, The Adequate View, into a glamorous, popular resort, much like the ones along the Italian coast. It appears his dream has finally come true in the form of up-and-coming film actress Dee Moray (not a real person) arriving on the isolated shores of Porto Vergogna to get away from the hustle and bustle of filming Cleopatra in Rome. Poor sweet Dee is under the impression that she is very ill with stomach cancer, when she is in fact pregnant with **SPOILER ALERT** Richard Burton’s baby. This is not such good news because a) someone has lied to Dee about having cancer so that she won’t know she’s pregnant; b) Richard Burton is married; c) Richard Burton is currently having an affair with Elizabeth Taylor; and d) Elizabeth Taylor is also married, and out of her mind. (Reasons B through D are real events). A publicist working on Cleopatra, Michael Deane (not a real person), has arranged this entire shenanigan, causing a great deal of heartache for Pasquale, hopelessly in love with Dee, and Dee, hopelessly in love with Richard Burton while having much affection for Pasquale. (It’s like a love rhombus.)

Fast forward to present day: Michael Deane is a legendary Hollywood producer, complete with inexplicable amounts of plastic surgery, who is a bit down on his luck these days, his only success of late being an online dating reality show. His assistant, Claire, is sick of working for such a has-been who is crushing her dreams of creating truly great Hollywood films. One day Claire is finishing up her usual pitch meetings on behalf of Michael when she encounters a dapper old Italian fellow seeking the assistance of Mr. Deane. The dapper old Italian fellow is none other than Pasquale Tursi, and he is seeking the assistance of Mr. Deane in locating Dee Moray.

The story goes back and forth between past and present, and the past parts are obviously much more interesting, in order to explain what has happened to various characters since the day Dee arrived in Porto Vergogna. As it turns out, she returned to her hometown in Washington to have Richard Burton’s child and revert back to her real name, Debra Moore, and then moved on to Idaho with the husband she claimed was her son Pat’s father. Pat turns out to be a lot like his real father, hitting many bumps along the road of his life, which makes you feel very, very sorry for Dee/Debra and everything that has happened to her.

It is an interesting dichotomy to be reading exactly what has happened to Dee while the other characters are still trying to figure it out, but I think the story gets a little bogged down in ancillary characters at times (example: Shane Wheeler, a young filmmaker who pitched his movie to Claire just before Pasquale came into the picture, and his sole reason for being in the story is to translate Pasquale’s Italian). Nonetheless, it is a lovely story about finding the one that got away, and it (half) takes place in Italy, so I do recommend it.

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