Typically I find when a book switches back and forth between stories or spread out one character’s story over several decades, one story or decade is far more interesting than the other. What ends up happening is that the other stories then feel like filler and I read half a book thinking “c’mon, get back to the good part”. So while the blurb at the back of Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins sounded intriguing, I approached it with some trepidation fearing I was about to enjoy half a book.
As it turns out, this was not the case. I devoured this book, eager to find out how the characters of 1962 end up and why their story mattered to the current timeline. When the stories switched back and forth, I didn’t find myself scanning quickly to go back to the meat of the story and I enjoyed that they were so…different. The 1962 storyline involved a young actress involved in the making of the epic film Cleopatra in Italy and wove true headlines from behind the scenes of that famous movie. The actual affair of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton during filming was key to the story of how the actress ends up meeting a young man living in a dying fishing town on the Italian coast.
The storyline that takes place in the current time was a satire of Hollywood; or maybe not event such a stretch. As the characters try to find the next big reality show or film, several ideas were pitched that were so ludicrous, I laughed out loud until I realized I could actually end up seeing these shows in a year or two. There were new characters in this storyline who end up interacting with the aged characters from 1962. The storyline switched back and forth between reality and reality tv, past and present in a way that didn’t feel jarring to the reader and certainly never made my attention wander. The mix of historical fiction and humor made for a very enjoyable read.
Reviewed by Felicity McRuer