Porto Vergogna in 1962 is a tiny, backward fishing village on the Ligurian coast in Italy. No one comes here. It’s a forgotten place, neglected, mocked by its flashier neighbors – the five tourism-driven villages of the Cinque Terre. The only visitor is one Alvis Bender, an American World War II veteran who comes for two weeks each year to work on his novel. After eight years, he has still only finished one chapter. But Pasquale Tursi, the young proprieter of Porto Vergogna’s only guest house, the Hotel Adequate View, believes that his town could be the next big destination for American tourists. Pasquale is determined to turn Porto Vergogna into a world-class resort. He plans a beach, and a tennis court hewn from the rocky cliffs overlooking the ocean. And it’s in working on his beach that Pasquale is engaged when a boat pulls up carrying the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen. Dee Moray is an American actress, cast as a lady-in-waiting to Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra, which is currently filming in Rome, and she is dying. She has come to Porto Vergogna to wait for a man, and Pasquale takes her on as a guest at the Hotel Adequate View.
Some sixty years later, an old Italian man turns up at the Hollywood studio of Michael Deane, a famous producer, looking for the beautiful woman who stayed in his hotel many years ago. What happened in 1962, and between times, and now, is the subject of this gorgeous, atmospheric novel.
I realize I’m late with this, because Beautiful Ruins has already made the rounds of the book blogs, and been praised from here to kingdom come. But I’ve only just gotten around to reading it, so I want to talk about it now, and now’s as good a time as any and better than most because this would make a fantastic beach read. The settings: primarily the sun-drenched Italian coast in 1962, and the perpetual summer of present-day Hollywood, are hot and beachy. And the writing will immediately pull you in, and you’ll feel the warm sea water lapping around Pasquale as he heaves rocks to create his beach, and the sun pounding down on Pasquale and Dee as they hike into the hills, and the heat shimmering off the stones of Rome as Pasquale searches for Michael Deane on Dee’s behalf.
It’s not just the setting, either. You will share Pasquale’s hopes and dreams as he tries to fulfill his late father’s greatest wish: to make Porto Vergogna into a destination. You will chuckle as Dee, ignorant of Italian, politely thanks Pasquale’s Aunt Valeria as Aunt Valeria heaps insults on her in Italian. You will shake your head at Michael Deane, but you will also recognize present-day Hollywood in him and his disillusioned assistant. You will fall headlong into this world that Jess Walter has created.
Let me also say one thing about the writing: it’s brilliant. It’s atmospheric and lovely, yes, but also insightful. The theme of the book is the stories that we create in our own lives. For instance, Alvis Bender – who loves to lecture – tells Pasquale:
“Stories are people. I’m a story, you’re a story… your father is a story. Our stories go in every direction, but sometimes, if we’re lucky, our stories join into one, and for awhile, we’re less alone.”
“But you never answered the question,” Pasquale said. “Why you come here.”
Bender pondered the wine in his hand. “A writer needs four things to achieve greatness, Pasquale: desire, disappointment, and the sea.”
“That’s only thee.”
Alvis finished his wine. “You have to do disappointment twice.”
All of the characters in this novel could be writers. They all experience desire, disappointment, the sea, and disappointment. And in a sense, they are all writers, because they’re constantly crafting their own life stories, even while they wait, as Dee would say, for their movies to start. And fortunately, Jess Walter must have also experienced desire, disappointment twice, and the sea, because Beautiful Ruins is a great achievement.
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