Despite the rain outside and the woolly cardigan I’m desperate to abandon but can’t seem to shrug off, it’s almost June and the holiday reading season is upon us. I’ve spent the last few days alternating between She Left me the Gun, Emma Brockes’s superb but harrowing account of finding out about her mother’s South African past and her abusive grandfather, and Jess Walters’s quirky Beautiful Ruins which has offered some welcome light relief.
Spanning fifty years, it opens in Italy in 1962 the year that the movie classic Cleopatra, starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, was shot in Rome. Pasquale Tursi is trying to make a beach in the impossibly rocky cove his hotel overlooks while the beautiful Hollywood actress, Dee Moray, rests upstairs in her room. It’s a charming opening to a novel which draws you in as it skips from 60s Italy to present day Hollywood taking its readers up little narrative side alleys along the way.
Dee has been dispatched to Porto Vergogna, cruelly tricked by Michael Deane, Cleopatra’s publicity fixer, into thinking she has stomach cancer when she’s actually pregnant – it might be a little hard to suspend your disbelief at this point but, as with so many details in this clever novel, all becomes clear later. She’s waiting for her lover, a famous movie star, who never arrives, and the gentlemanly Pasquale decides that he must rescue her setting in train a series of events which remain unresolved for fifty years when he travels to Hollywood to track her down.
Each character in Beautiful Ruins has their own love story. Pasquale has left his beloved Amedea behind in Florence to care for his widowed mother; Dee is besotted with her famous movie star; Alvis Bender, who returns to Porto Vergogna to write his book every year, falls for Dee; Dee’s son, has written a love song about Lydia which touches the hearts of all who hear it; Claire, Michael Deane’s assistant, can’t decide whether or not to ditch her porn-addicted boyfriend – and the lists goes on. There is a good deal of gentle humour in Walters’s novel and Hollywood’s self obsession is nicely mocked. Occasionally the narrative’s many diversions seem a step too far – Alvis Bender’s one and only chapter, Shane, Pasquale’s accidental translator’s movie pitch – but all is satisfyingly tied in later in the story.
Billed by the publishers as ‘this summer’s ultimate beach read’ Beautiful Ruins is better than that: both amusing and absorbing it’s much more cleverly put together than the usual holiday reading romp. One to sit back and enjoy, come rain or shine.