Jess Walter’s sixth novel , Beautiful Ruins, might seem like a pure homage to Classic Hollywood Cinema. However, the book proves to be so much more. It’s a braided tale with chapters jumping forward fifty years, hopscotching across America and Europe, and introducing characters seemingly unrelated to main characters in the 60’s, Dee and Pasquale, until their lives intersect in the present. A fast-paced and insightful novel, Beautiful Ruins captures the spectacle of modern cinema, humorously critiquing its imprint on our culture today even as it celebrates its capacity for prosaic love and extraordinary joy.
Walter cunningly re-works the history of Old Hollywood through events surrounding the making of the disastrous 1963 film, “Cleopatra.” In the storyline that occurs in the present, we meet two Hollywood archetypes: the underappreciated production company assistant, Claire Silver, and the aspiring young screenwriter, Shane Wheeler. Shane is pitching the cannibalistic exploits of the Donner Party as an epic action romance entitled Donner! In one of my favorite revelations of the novel, Shane says, “Weren’t movies his generation’s faith anyway—its true religion? Wasn’t the theatre our temple, the one place we enter separately but emerge from two hours later together, with the same experience, same guided emotions, same moral?” The author points out that cinema affects so much of modern life, and in many ways we can’t even describe.
Both Claire’s and Shane’s fates are tied to Michael Deane, a Botox-filled Hollywood power player and scumbag. We soon learn he was responsible for salvaging Cleopatra and keeping 20th Century Fox solvent several decades ago.
The turmoil involved in the production of Cleopatra provided a perfect background for Beautiful Ruins. The various sexual, financial, and media catastrophes that plagued the film echo throughout the novel’s many locales. Like the movie set in 1960’s Rome, contemporary Los Angeles, and especially in Porto Vergogna, where Pasquale’s blossoming friendship with Dee becomes the linchpin of the story.
Beautiful Ruins is his Walter’s latest novel, a number one New York Times bestseller. While Walter’s other novels have tackled modern concerns like the aftermath of 9/11 and the current financial crisis, the rich historical context of Beautiful Ruins adds a necessary dose of cultural reflection. Walter’s writing forces us to look at our current engagement to the cinema and mainstream pop culture as well deeper connections to people, places, and memories.
After I finished Beautiful Ruins, I found myself wishing I could have spent more time with its characters. Dee and Pasquale are an especially compelling pair, and after reaching the last few pages I wanted to remain with them a little longer. In their relationship, Walter articulates a sense that we’ve taken part in something larger than a film or even a book—something that can endure through the passing of time.
Reviewer Carter Clabaugh is the intern for the Center of American Literary Studies. Clabaugh is a junior at Penn State University Park majoring in English.