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They don't make them like they used to

Beautiful Ruins is a cinematic romp

Created date

August 25th, 2014
Beautiful Ruins book cover
Beautiful Ruins book cover

Does the current crop of reality television programs leave you longing for the golden age of Hollywood? If so, you will surely enjoy Jess Walter’s clever and completely enjoyable novel Beautiful Ruins (Harper Perennial). 

The story opens in 1962 on the Italian island of Porto Vergogna when Dee Moray, a beautiful young starlet, arrives seeking a place to convalesce. A twenty-two year old blonde ingénue, Dee had been in Rome filming Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton when the set doctor diagnosed her with having stomach cancer. 

Dee is ferried to the island by Pasquale Tursi, a strong Italian who dreams of turning his home island into a magnificent resort. He views Dee’s arrival as just the thing to generate a bit of positive publicity for Porto Vergogna. However, his infatuation with Dee quickly supersedes his business interests. It soon becomes apparent that Dee is not suffering from cancer. She’s pregnant and unmarried. Her false cancer diagnosis and subsequent island exile were a ploy cooked up by a 20th Century Fox publicist named Michael Deane to keep the scandal a secret.


The story then jumps ahead fifty years, to a time when the kind of larger-than-life movie stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton have gone the way of the dinosaurs, replaced by insipid reality television stars, much to the chagrin of Claire Silver, a Hollywood development girl who dreamed of making thoughtful and important films but instead finds herself in a quagmire of junky reality television. One Friday every month, Claire holds forth at “Wild Pitch Friday,” where anyone can pitch her story ideas.  

Wild Pitch Friday is why Shane Wheeler, a young man lacking both experience and talent, makes the pilgrimage from his home in Portland, Ore., to Hollywood. Shane dreams of becoming a screenwriter and is determined to wow Claire with his pitch for a film about the famous Donner Party—best remembered for the cannibalism that transpired when the pioneers became snowbound in the Sierra Nevada in 1846. 

What ties the various story lines together is Michael Deane, who went from publicist extraordinaire to legendary Hollywood producer to washed-up Hollywood producer in the span of fifty years. Deane is consumed by using everything in the medical arsenal to maintain his youth. Those treatments “have caused a seventy-two-year old man to have the face of a nine year old Filipino girl.”                                                                                 

Walter has written six novels, including The Zero, which was a National Book Award finalist. In Beautiful Ruins, he does an expert job weaving the various narratives together. By the end of the novel, the storylines come together in a tightly braided conclusion. The story is fun and the characters are unforgettable.

While much of the book is rather satirical, Walter sneaks in some profound and even poignant moments at the end. As much fun as Beautiful Ruins is to read, it will ultimately leave you thinking about the true value of dreams both real and imagined and the factory town in Southern California that continues to create them.