“Beautiful Ruins” uses complex characters to satirize Hollywood

In an early 1960s Italian coastal town by the name of Porto Vergogna, a stunning actress steps off an old boat and immediately captivates a young Italian man named Pasquale. As the actress smiles at him, he falls in love, “not so much with the woman, whom he didn’t even know, but with the moment.” This actress is Dee Moray, young, blonde and straight from the set of Cleopatra, the infamous movie starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Dee is also dying of cancer.

It’s only fitting that a book satirizing modern-day Hollywood and the movie business that drives it opens like a movie pitch. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter is advertised as a “love story spanning decades” because it jumps from 1960s Italy to modern day Hollywood then back to World War II era Italy, but it is so much more than that. Walter depicts everyone’s yearning for the glamorous, scandal-ridden world of fame and the few who manage to land in it.

Beautiful Ruins tells the story of that poor Italian and the young American actress in the 1960s. It also tells the stories of an aging has-been movie director and his stunning young mistresses in present-day Hollywood, a desperate musician, a wannabe screenwriter and a Hollywood assistant whose only dream is to be a movie producer. All of these seemingly unrelated characters are tied together in surprising ways.

The beauty behind each of these characters comes from their complexity. For example, the director, Michael Deane, is presented as the ultimate celebrity cliché. His younger days were spent directing quality movies that brought in both rave reviews and money from the box office. However, his career has shifted to producing trashy reality television hits. He is terrified of aging, addicted to plastic surgery and lives with his gorgeous young wife in a Beverly Hills mansion. However, as the book progresses, he turns out to have a much more calculating and manipulative side to him that, though dark, is surprisingly emotional.

Though Walter’s main characters are fun to read, his smaller characters, some of whom appear in only a single chapter, are just as poignant. An alcoholic writer is just one of these well-written characters. He visits Porto Vergogna every year to write his memoir, though after several years, he has only written one chapter. Instead of leaving him as the classic drunken writer, Walter decides to give him an interesting backstory by writing a chapter in Beautiful Ruins as his memoir. Through this heartbreaking memoir, we learn that this writer was an American soldier serving in Italy during World War II. In addition, my favorite character never actually makes an appearance in the book. He is merely talked about, and he too was a soldier during World War II. In an attempt to get to know Dee Moray better, Pasquale takes her to an old World War II bunker with two nearly identical paintings of a girl on the walls. The pair speculates on who the girl might be and what she meant to the soldier who painted her. It isn’t until the very end of the novel that we learn why this German soldier painted her on the wall twice and what happened to him.

In addition to being both heartbreaking and funny, Beautiful Ruins is an interesting exploration of the desire for fame, recognition and the lengths some people are willing to go to achieve it. Just like in life, nearly every character in this novel is trying to make his or her mark in one way or another. Walter is painfully blunt at times, serving to remind us all that not everyone’s dreams are meant to come true.

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