BEAUTIFUL RUINS is so effortlessly engrossing that its considerable technical accomplishments take a backseat to its more conventional charms—novelist Jess Walter integrates screenplay treatments, a theater script, and a Hollywood advice book seamlessly into the plot of what feels like a very traditional novel, in the best sense. It's a book about love and mistakes and forgiveness and failure, elements that are packed into the delicate shell of an encounter, in 1962, between an American actress and a young Italian innkeeper.
But that encounter, charged as it is—the actress thinks she is dying; the innkeeper thinks he can save his dying town—serves primarily as a launch point for a series of interlocking stories that range from the set of the film Cleopatra to a contemporary community theater production in Idaho; from Hollywood to the Edinburgh Fringe. It's pure pleasure watching these many plotlines converge, in large part because Walter has unfailing compassion for his characters—even the ones who might not deserve it. (Hollywood producers are at the top of that list.)
Beautiful Ruins serves as a nice companion piece to another recent, time-hopping novel by a Washington author: Jim Lynch's Truth Like the Sun. (Beautiful Ruins even touches on the primary subject of Lynch's novel: Seattle's growth around the time of the World's Fair.) It also has much of the historical acuity and heart of Glen David Gold's Sunnyside. In short, it's a great novel—clear eyed but not cruel, sentimental but not maudlin, and generous in its ambitions.