“Beautiful Ruins” by Jess Walter

Beautiful Ruins” by Jess Walter  (2912)  –  352 pages

“Beautiful Ruins” is the perfect example of a novel which is climbing up the best seller lists, but which as a literary work of fiction is laughably bad. 

 I started reading “Beautiful Ruins”, because after reading several very positive reviews, I figured this might be one of those rare novels that make the best seller lists yet still have some literary quality.  Such was not the case. 

 “Beautiful Ruins” begins with the arrival by boat of the beautiful but dying young American actress Dee Moray to the tiny Italian seacoast village of Porto Vergogna.  There we meet the cute, quirky, but lovable stock Italians who live in this tiny village (Italy ought to sue).   Our actress stays at the Adequate View inn which is run by the cute but lovable young Italian man Pasquale Tursi.  He is happy to have the American actress staying there, since the only other American who has stayed at the inn is the handsome but alcoholic Hemingway-esque author Alvis Bender who comes each year to write his war novel (Has there ever been a writer in a bad novel who was not Hemingway-esque?).  Due to his alcoholism and his war memories which have scarred him, Bender has only completed one chapter of his novel.  

“Beautiful Ruins” let’s us read that one chapter of Bender’s war novel.  Frankly, this war story is so trite and hackneyed; if I were the author I would have quit writing it long before I reached the end of the first chapter.

The year is 1962, and the actress Dee Moray is in Italy to act in a small role in the movie ‘Cleopatra’ which is filming there with its major actors Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.   Thus we meet the conniving double-dealing movie producer Michael Deane.  Soon we are flashing forward to modern-day Hollywood so we can admire the entire span of Michael Deane’s career from producing bad movies like ‘Cleopatra’ to producing bad TV reality shows.  So of course, “Beautiful Ruins” gives us a chapter from Michael Deane’s autobiography which is about as awe-inspiring as his pathetic career.

Since we are now in Hollywood, “Beautiful Ruins” subjects us to a movie ‘treatment’ called “Donner” about the ill-fated frontier Donner party.  I suppose this represents all the bad scripts and treatments that are floating around Hollywood, and in that sense it succeeds.   

Later we again skip forward to nearly the present to meet Dee Moray’s son, Pat Bender, who is a tortured, sensitive rebellious rock musician who abuses drugs and alcohol and who is hugely attractive to women.  

“Beautiful Ruins” quotes the dumb-ass sappy lyrics to his best and most famous song, ‘Lydia’, which is about the woman he truly loves while he is screwing all these other sluts.  Later his life is turned into a dumb-ass play ‘Front Man’ of which, luckily for us readers, only parts of acts I and III are in “Beautiful Ruins”.  

So “Beautiful Ruins” is a bunch of stereotypes on top of a pile of clichés.  While reading, I kept a running count of all the original thoughts and authentic feelings that are contained in “Beautiful Ruins”.  The final count was zero.

10 responses to this post.

  1. Oh dear, what an awful waste of good reading time. I used to be able to detect this type of book from the cover: large cursive script title with smaller sub-title + prominent author name +stock image in tawdry colours. But so many publishers are cutting costs by outsourcing their design work that it doesn’t always work any more.


  2. Hi Lisa,
    Somehow ‘Beautiful Ruins’ has gotten many, many positive reviews including from writer Richard Russo, “Why mince words? Beautiful Ruins is an absolute masterpiece.” I suppose part of my opinion was shaped by the lousy Italian accent on the audiobook.; that shaped my opinion that the author was dealing in stereotypes all the way through from Hemingway author to decadent rock star


  3. I almost bought this one because I liked the cover, and because it was heavily promoted and well-reviewed. I probably won’t get to it, even though I love Richard Russo, because I now have to tick off all the BIG FALL Books on my list (and some of them are turning out to be surprisingly good).


    • Hi Frisbee,
      Yes, there are some good novels out there this fall. Every year it seems like we wait nine months asking where are the good novels, and then they all get released in time for the Christmas shopping season. I started one of Russo’s novels but didn’t finish it; not a big fan of him either. It seems like a lot of US writers have journalist backgrounds which seems to spoil them for fiction.


  4. After reading Citizen Vince, I was looking forward to this one but quickly abandoned it. Too clever by half.


    • Hi Fay,
      This was my first book by Jess Walter. I guess they are going to make a movie of ‘Financial Lives of the Poets’, and I would not be surprised if they made ‘Beautiful Ruins’ into a mvoie also. Ironically, I think it might make a better movie than novel as movies are more likely to deal with cliches.


  5. Has you ever come across the word satire? Beautiful Ruins is a brilliant dissection of Hollywood and a great love story at the same time. Your comments about Shane’s pitch, Bender’s novel and Deane’s autobiography – yes, that was exactly what Walter intended. And the same with Pat’s song ‘Lydia.’ You’ll rarely see a novel written with such perfect control.


  6. Hi cphowe,
    You say “Beautiful Ruins” ‘is a brilliant dissection of Hollywood and a great love story at the same time”. To me it was a travesty of a love story between two of the most stereotypical characters I’ve come across in a novel, our cute little stock Italian and the bit American actress. Is it a satire or a love story; he can’t have it both ways. Still I liked the Italian scenes much better than the more modern scenes.


  7. I try not to say anything bad about novels–truly I do. I appreciate how much work it is to write a novel and I’ve been reading them, good and bad, for over 50 years now. In fact reading novels is my profession. I wanted to love this book. I have direct ties to Italy, the second world war and the Pacific North West. And all the over the top reviews by big names, not to mention the cover, sold me on the book. And the basic ideas could be fine with another treatment or a different writer. And again, I don’t want to criticize the writer personally, I admire his stamina to finish the book and to tackle the huge scope. But–if this had been written by a woman it would have been laughed out of the ball park as the worst of Chick Lit. And as I said, I’m a compulsive reader and can enjoy just about anything from Faulkner to Agatha Christie but this novel stymied me. Why all the hyped reviews? And of course it will be a wildly successful film. Wonder who will play the leads?


    • It ‘would have been laughed out of the ballpark as the worst kind of Chick Lit’. I agree. And I also agree, the novel is just dumb enough to make a good movie, but not smart enough to make a good novel.


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