Celebitchy Book Club: ‘Beautiful Ruins’ by Jess Walter


Celebitchy’s take (SPOILERS):

Our selection this month was Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. It’s hard to do justice to how much I enjoyed this book and to how it resonated with me. Walter introduces multiple characters across decades and yet somehow makes it easy to follow who is whom, how they’re connected to each other, and where you are. The dialogue and characters are both poignant and funny, meaningful yet ordinary. I got the sense that Walter was trying to strike a balance between writing a sweeping, masterful novel and conveying that there was nothing special about this particular story, or his characters. He did that by including multiple secondary characters and plotlines to underline his point, which never felt hackneyed or overwrought.

The novel starts in 1962 with a young Italian innkeeper who recently inherited the only hotel on a remote Italian island. Pasquale dreams of creating a vacation destination, and has improbable plans for a tennis court on a rocky cliff overlooking the ocean. A beautiful American actress named Dee Moray comes to stay at the hotel, and it’s unclear at first if she has the wrong island. It turns out that she’s been hoodwinked into believing she has cancer when she is in fact pregnant with actor Richard Burton’s baby (although you don’t really get that confirmed until about halfway through the book). Dee was brought to the island to keep her as far away from Burton, and from production for Cleopatra, as possible. Pasquale falls in love with Dee, although their relationship does not get physical and it’s hard to tell at first if she reciprocates.

We’re transported to current day, when an elderly Pasquale comes to Los Angeles to seek out Moray. He gets in contact with the squirrelly producer who orchestrated Dee’s sequestration in 1962. While we wait for Pasquale and Dee to be reunited, we’re introduced to other characters over the space of the intervening time, including the producer’s assistant, another guest at the Italian hotel, a young screenwriter who wants to pitch his idea to the producer, and Dee’s adult son.

Some of my favorite moments in the book had to do with Hollywood, gossip and scandal of course. There was a wonderful subplot concerning the scandal of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s affair on the set of Cleopatra. Our conniving producer, Michael Deane, wrote a rejected memoir detailing how he spun Liz and Dick’s affair into publicity for the film, which had a bloated budget and was in danger of not breaking even at the box office. Deane’s treatise on how he realized that we all want trashy entertainment was spot on:

We want what we want.

Dick wanted Liz. Liz wanted Dick. And we want car wrecks. We say we don’t. But we love them. To look is to love. A thousand people drive past the statue of David. Two hundred look. A thousand people drive past a car wreck. A thousand look…

When the picture opened I needed Dick to be boning Liz in the dining room of the Chateau Marmont. And I needed Eddie Fisher to go limping away.

Kaiser’s Take:

I enjoyed this book for what it was – I didn’t really consider it a difficult or challenging read, but it was different from the books I usually read for pure pleasure (legal thrillers, detective stories), so it was nice stepping out of my comfort zone. Since CB did such a good job of recapping the basic story, so I’ll just do some bullet points for my favorite/least favorite parts:

*I liked all of the historical elements of post-WWII Italy, how so many of the younger men were gone and how there were remnants of the war (both good and bad) all around. One of my favorite parts was the gun turret/bunker where the German soldier had painted beautiful portraits.

*I got a bit tired of all of the stuff with the WWII veteran and barely functioning alcoholic Alvis – I could have done without the chapter of his book, quite honestly.

*The Claire Silver character was enjoyable even though she seemed like such a cliche – the D-girl looking for depth? Yeah. We get it. But I enjoyed her section of the book a lot.

*A pleasant surprise: when it turned out that Pasquale hadn’t been moping around for Dee for 50 years. I liked that he had lived a full life with children and grandchildren and an adoring wife, and that he sought out Dee when he was ready.

*I can’t imagine that Richard Burton’s estate was happy about this book, although when you think about it, there probably ARE a few Burton children out there beyond the ones we know about. That man got around, mostly before he got with Elizabeth Taylor, but he still got around a little during and after Elizabeth too.

*I really questioned the Dee’s wisdom of never telling her son Pat any kind of details about the circumstances of his conception. I mean, you don’t have to tell the kid right off the bat that he’s Richard Burton’s kid, but shouldn’t you tell him at some point, perhaps in his teenage years or his 20s? Especially considering Burton’s well-documented alcoholism and Pat’s inherited propensity for addiction(s).

*Everyone got a Hollywood ending for the most part, did you notice? Everyone got some version of what they wanted. It was sentimental and rather sweet.

So, would I recommend this book to people? Sure. As I said, I enjoyed it, it’s an easy read and it’s a nice enough story. I think I enjoyed it more than our last book club selection, A Visit From the Goon Squad.

Our next Celebitchy Book Club Selection is… The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. We will be discussing it December 8th!


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62 Responses to “Celebitchy Book Club: ‘Beautiful Ruins’ by Jess Walter”

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  1. Aussie girl says:

    Yes!! Am really excited and have been hoping for a book club for us here @ celebitchy!!!!

    • Anne says:

      I read this book this past spring and struggled getting through it. Was surprised to see it on Celebitchy list :/

  2. Dawn says:

    This does sound fun. But first I have to finish reading A Discovery of Witches. It’s really a good book too.

    • BlueStockings says:

      Great book as is the sequel Shadows Of The Night. We are currently waiting for the 3rd instalment and I can’t wait.

      • Nicka says:

        Oh man, I am dying for the third installment of the ADOW series! I absolutely LOVED the first and second books! I thoroughly enjoyed the weaving of fantasy with true historical facts. I wish Deborah Harkness would hurry up and finish the book already! 🙂

    • Sloane Wyatt says:

      Celebitchy Book Club is a great idea! *cheers*

      I don’t like historical novels, however. In the future, I’m looking forward to discussing selections that I’ll be more interested in reading.

    • Jane says:

      LOVED the first book, was really disappointed by the second.

  3. Dorothy#1 says:

    How did I not know we were doing a book club??? Sounds like a good book, I will read the next one for sure 🙂

  4. ojulia123 says:

    I read Celebitchy EVERY DAY, sometimes several times a day (don’t judge…escapism is *smart*). How did I not know there was a book club? !

  5. chloe says:

    I’ve had this book sitting on a shelf for awhile, I guess I need to read it.

  6. Lexie says:

    I know I’ll be in the minority here (I read this book after two friends said it was the best thing they’d read all year), but I did not enjoy it. I already have a bias against historical fiction, I admit, but the cliched writing sealed it. Come on — disillusioned, principled Claire is about to ditch her empty Hollywood job with Deane but has just one. more. pitch to hear. And it changes everything. Gah! I’ll take Goon Squad’s intricate lacing of stories and complex characters over this any day.

    • Celebitchy says:

      That’s cool Lexie. I side with your friends, but Kaiser probably leans more toward your opinion. That’s why we have two of us reviewing the books. -edited to say that Goon Squad was too hard for me to get through. Maybe if I dedicated the thought to it I could have managed to get more out of it, but I wanted something easier and Beautiful Ruins was that for me. It didn’t feel dumbed down and I appreciated how readable it was.

    • Kaiser says:

      I liked Beautiful Ruins because it was such an easy read – I think I started it on a Saturday and I had finished it by Tuesday. Goon Squad took me FOREVER – it was obtuse just for the sake of being obtuse. I don’t think Beautiful Ruins was classy high-art literature, but it was fun and sweet.

    • j.eyre says:

      I, too, was underwhelmed, Lexie, and I not only adore historical fiction, I write it (not well, mind you, but I do write it.) I thought the book was okay and as Kaiser mention, it was an easy so read so it did not take me away from anything. There were many things I liked about it but overall, I thought Mr. Walter bit off more than he could chew.

      *I thought there were far too many main characters. I feared I would need to keep a journal to try and keep all the backstories straight. This mental investment would have been worth it if the author had made a truly inspired convergence at the end but the final chapter was anti-climatic with everything he had given us up to that point.

      *I really appreciate that he tried to give each characters backstory chapter their own voice but he fell short in truly differentiating the tone. He excelled with some (Pasquale, Burton, Deane, Claire) but the others he either did not develop or lost half way through the book.

      *What was the point of Shane – anyone could have been a translator. His arc went nowhere to have been given such a backstory. Why not make him a secondary character?

      *He did a beautiful job with some of the characters. I thought Claire was a strong and consistent character and probably the most developed. I like Pasquale and for the most part, he was consistent as well. I liked the Deane and Alvis characters too, all of these were well written. I really felt he captured Burton pretty well; I enjoyed that, especially the scene of him trying to get Deane in the boat.

      *I absolutely love that Mr. Walter left his characters flawed but you did not have to hate them. I really liked Alvis. I kept waiting to hate him but I completely saw why Dee put up with him. Claire going back to the bozo at the end was a nice touch. Deane still being the soulless Hollywood hustler – I thought all of that was great.

      *I agree with Kaiser about Pasquale not pining for Dee was a nice touch. But did you ever really understand why he came to get her? Was it just because he was a lonely widower or was this a remnant of watching his mother waste away without his father? It was nice, I am glad Dee got back to Italy, I just was not too sure what his motivation was.

      • Mrs Tiggywinkle says:

        You pretty much sum up my thoughts about this book, Miss Eyre. I didn`t not like it but wasn`t passionate about finishing it. Claire and Michael Deane were the best characters, with some characters` chapters being a chore to get through. I felt like Walter lost his editing button somewhere along the way.

        I liked the details of Deane caling the paps, all that was delicious.

        I won’t recommend this book to my friends except one who will particularly enjoy the old hollywood stuff.

      • j.eyre says:

        There were some truly beautiful scenes as well. The first chapter, I thought was great and it pulled me in. I thought the scene in which Pasquale holds Dee’s hand as she retches and she gives him that extra squeeze – small moments like that spelled out everything I needed to know about their relationship. And I loved that Dee’s first sentence to Pasquale at the end was “What took you so long” that gave me goosebumps. When Kurtis kicks the guitar and Pat sees, in that moment, that the last vestiges of life he has are tied to that one object – it was just a line, but so well placed. And my favorite scene with Pat is when he thinks “do it” while speaking to Lydia on the phone.

        Many scenes I was able to walk into, Mr. Walter has a gift for description. I could draw the Hotel Adequate View in my minds eye.

        I felt he relied a bit too much on expository dialogue, especially since it was a third person narrative.

        But, I just now thought – wouldn’t it have been interesting if Dee had remained slightly more enigmatic? If she had not been given a backstory chapter herself – it might have been quite compelling to have her the common thread and to develop her almost exclusively through the other characters eyes. That would have been difficult to do but possibly a really interesting way to portray a character.

        I am off to church now so I will shut up. Sorry to babble…

      • O'Angie says:

        Yep, pretty much how I felt about the story overall. I found the first 45% very difficult to get into. Every time I finally started to give a crap about a character/story line the chapter ended. And starting over again while having no clue where the storyline was going was very frustrating. But, this isn’t my typical genre, and I don’t really enjoy books that jump around in the timeline. I like forward momentum. But, by the end I was happy I stuck with it. Would I recommend it? Probably only to people who enjoy this type of story. Outside of that, no.

      • Celebitchy says:

        @J. Eyre, There were a lot of characters but I thought that the way they were presented made them easy to follow. In our last selection, Goon Squad, this was not the case.

        Oh I agree about Shane! He was introduced with such fanfare and then his character became kind of a dud.

        I did like Claire. I see the point about her character being a cliche, but this didn’t occur to me when I was reading it.

        “I absolutely love that Mr. Walter left his characters flawed but you did not have to hate them. ” – Very good point and true!

        “I am glad Dee got back to Italy, I just was not too sure what his motivation was.” – I think that Dee represented all of Pasquales hopes and dreams as a young man. After he did the right thing (remember the quote about how it’s easier when what you want is close to what is right?) and was a husband and father, he wanted to revisit the dreams of his youth and Dee embodied that. It’s not like he had regrets about his life, he just wanted to see what the possibilities were.

  7. fingerbinger says:

    I went and got Beautiful Ruins,but I didn’t read it yet. I’ll show myself out now.

    • Just Passing Through says:

      I’ll join you……it’s still sitting, uopened, on my kindle. 🙁

    • Green Girl says:

      I am about halfway through this book, and I don’t know if I can get through it. I want to like it a lot, as it has so many elements I typically love: Descriptive settings, characters that seem realistic, a multi-character plot that spans decades, etc. I don’t know, though, it’s just not what I thought it would be.

      That being said, I do like the CB book club. I read the site almost every day, and I only seem to remember seeing the ad on the right side of the screen (*points*). I don’t seem to recall any other reminder, so maybe it would help if CB did a weekly reminder of the book club?

  8. fancyamazon says:

    I haven’t been participating in the book club because I have been going through a kick of reading science fiction and fictional social commentary books from the 40’s thru the early 70’s. Like right now I am just cracking open Brave New World. And I just finished Frederik Pohl’s Man Plus. But this last selection sounds like it was a lot of fun, so I might give this new one a try. 🙂

    • Sloane Wyatt says:

      I, too, am a HUGE Science Fiction fan and have especially fond memories of roaming the aisles of hole in the wall vintage comic book stores, happily spending hours poring through used Science Fiction paperbacks, my girlchild self being an object of curious amusement for the all-male live in your mom’s basement fellow aficionados. Under their bemused tutelage, I discovered the magical universe of the first Golden Age of Science Fiction.

      May I recommend Clifford D. Simak’s City? It was first published as a novel in 1952 and named the winner of the International Fantasy Award for the best science fiction novel of the year. Just about any work by Simak deserves to be considered a classic, and City is no exception; it’s a fantastic read and a unique perspective on dogs and the race of man. City evokes Ray Bradbury’s protagonists telling the tales of times past and was created from stories published in the 1940s.

    • Sloane Wyatt says:

      fancyamazon, I forgot to post yesterday that I am SO excited for you because you’re gonna love Brave New World! Along with ‘1984’, this book is bone chillingly prescient with it’s predictions of eugenics, DNA manipulation, clones, test tube embryos, and our Big Brother Corporate Surveillance State that we enjoy today. Brave New World can be a bit dry, especially in the beginning, but it quickly gains momentum and sucks you in with its everyman hero’s journey into willful submission to the State and of his undying allegiance to the charismatic figurehead lovingly known as “Big Brother” firmly entrenched by the novel’s end.

  9. Birdix says:

    A recommendation — to get the most out of The Paris Wife, read (or reread) A Moveable Feast first. And have plans to be in Paris…

  10. Rhiley says:

    It is funny, I finished the book assuming it was written by a woman. I downloaded my copy from iTunes. If you skim reviews from Amazon, which I did before purchasing the book, a picture of a woman with dark, curly hair is on the first page. I assumed she was Jess Walter. I enjoyed the book, but somehow enjoy it more now realizing it was written by a man. He did a great job developing Dee Moray and making her both a strong, yet vulnerable woman.

    • Celebitchy says:

      This same thing happened to me just yesterday! I thought that Jess Walter was a woman the entire time, and then when I was writing my review I googled (him) and realized the author was a man. I agree that you couldn’t tell the difference at all. Oh and thanks for pointing out that the photo of the reviewer on Amazon threw you off. That’s probably what happened to me too.

    • Ginger says:

      If you’ve ever read Tom Robbins he does the same thing. His protagonists are almost always female and the characters are so authentic that I had a hard time believing they were really written by a man. BUT then I met him and had him sign two of my books! I had the opportunity to ask him how he could get inside of a woman’s head so easily and have an authentic voice. He said that he’s always been surrounded by and loved women so it wasn’t difficult for him to imagine it and then create the character. Perhaps Jess Walter is the same way?

  11. j.eyre says:

    I would like to throw my full support behind A Paris Wife. I love that book and cannot wait to discuss it. I gave my copy away and am willing to get a new copy just so I can discuss.

  12. Aqua says:

    I’ was so excited when I first read about the book club.I couldn’t wait to get started,but then the cat got fleas,which meant the dog also had fleas.So i had to give him a bath everyday trying to get rid of them only to end up going to the vet to get stronger flea medicine for both, as well as a flea spray.Had to not only spray the house down but we has to bag everything we could and put it in the dryer.Just when I was getting caught up with everything ,I ended up flat on my back for three days with a really bad cold.When I finally came back to life my house looked like a frat house.Took me days to clean up and it felt like I was never going to see my floor or the tops of my kitchen counter ever again.So finally after three weeks of being in lock down I have finally emerged only to look at the book sitting on my night stand going “screw it,it’s to late now, maybe the next one’

  13. Just Me says:

    I bought the book, but haven’t finished it yet. Avoided the spoilers here and just read your take,

    The Paris Wife? I’ve read that, already. You will never see Hemingway the same again. Very hard to read. Bastard.

    • Az says:

      Out of curiosity, how did you see Hemingway before you read that book? I thought alcoholic and misogynist were the two most common adjectives used to describe Hemingway (the man, not the writer).

      • Just Me says:

        Have you read the book? Understanding that Hemingway is supposed to be an awful person is one thing — but then reading the things he did to Hadley, from someone who gave her a voice based on her own writings, is entirely another. It’s like hearing that your neighbor down the street is a cheating douche bag, and then hearing first hand from the wife, in detail, the emotional torture she went through. 2 entirely different things. I’m not going to get into specifics – because spoilers! – but reading the Paris Wife made never want to read anything of his ever again. Save for A Moveable Feast because I wanted to reread what the jackass had to say for himself with a fresh set of eyes.

  14. Ginger says:

    Oh I LOVED The Paris Wife…great selection! I flew through the first selection, A Visit From The Goon Squad. Right now I’m reading Telegraph Avenue. I’m from the San Francisco Bay Area originally so it’s interesting how the author is using Berkeley, California as the backdrop. I can’t wait to discuss The Paris Wife.

    • Rhiley says:

      How do you like Telegraph Avenue? I have a hard time with Chabon. I spent a few years in the Bay Area. When I was there, Cavalier and Klay was popular. I tried to like it, but honestly thought it was boring as hell.

  15. LadySlippers says:

    I did not realise the ad for the book was to promote the CB Book Club — so I dutifully ignored it. However, now that I know — I’ll try and participate as I LOVE to read.

  16. claire says:

    I didn’t end up having the time to read it, but I fully am behind this idea and am going to make an effort to read the next one!

  17. Hannah says:

    I rather enjoyed the bit where Dee is hiding out in Italy. As for the rest… I just didn’t care about the characters.

  18. TheOriginalTiffany says:

    I didn’t realize there was a book club either! I don’t think I am missing much by not reading this first book. I will definitely read the next one, glad so many are recommending it. Amazon will be getting some of my money today.

    Nice to see a book club here, I bet many of us are voracious readers. 😃

  19. Lilmssunshine says:

    Yay!! I read celebitchy everyday ( I can admit I lurk) and love the articles and comments. A book club is great! I’m going to start The Paris Wife today!

  20. boo says:

    FYI, I love to read too, right now I’m reading The New Republic by Lionel Shriver. I had read Lets Talk About Kevin, after seeing the film with my girl crush Tilda Swinton and decided to read the book. Lionel Shriver is an amazing writer and a woman! Yes, her name is Lionel. There is a back to story to her name, she was not born Lionel, but thought that her original name, Margaret Anne, did not suit her. When I read I go on tangents, and if I find an author I like, I usually like to find other books I might like from that author and read reviews and so on to see if I will enjoy it. I am financially challenged (said with a slight smirk, long story) for some time now, so I go to my community library and sometimes take the bus to one further away. I get all my books through the library unless I find something interesting at my local thrift store. I have been a life time reader and there is nothing I love to do more. I have to add that Celebitchy is one of my favorite sites and now there is a book club too! What more can you ask for?

    • j.eyre says:

      I loved We Need to Talk About Kevin. I was so happy when I saw Tilda was making that movie – I thought they did a pretty good job with it too. I thought the book as astounding.

      • Sloane Wyatt says:

        ITA, boo and j.eyre!

        We Need to Talk About Kevin is a psychological thriller that takes your breath away, squeezes your queasy guts in a vise, and never lets up. The author’s stolid honesty and unflinching prose make you privy to the darkly terrifying undercurrents running just beneath the placid surface of the novel’s seemingly benign family. As the layers slowly peel back from the family’s façade of propriety, the boy and his mother’s most mundane exchanges become charged with an edge-of-your-seat intensity.

        With otherworldly cool detachment, Kevin’s mom scrupulously notes for the record the day-to-day minutia of her family’s inexorable slide into hell. The twists in We Need to Talk About Kevin keep coming like visceral blows, until the family’s pervasively subliminal rot erupts into a frenzy of deception, violence, and depravity.

  21. Can I recommend a book for another month? Night Film, by Marisha Pessl. I’m less than 200 pages in, but it’s kinda fascinating, and I’d love to hear what CB and Kaiser have to say about it. (Kaiser: it’s a crime thriller…)

  22. Leah says:

    Loved this book, I thought the back and forth would throw me off but I didn’t mind it at all. I was also wondering if the Burton estate would have an issue with the love child aspect but couldn’t find anything about it online. And I liked that he went back at the end and gave an ending to all of the characters even the unmentioned German solider because I’m the type of person who wonders about those people at the end.

  23. Fatkid says:

    I too found it to be an easy read, perfect while I was traveling.
    Historical fiction is my favorite genre (though I do spend a lot of time with suspenseful mysteries as well). This is probably the first historical gossip fiction that I have read and I found the added scandal element enjoyable. I’m not sure that I would go out of my way to recommend it to friends, but it was an easy fun read.

  24. Tig says:

    I am pretty disappointed with the next selection/ I hated “The Paris Wife”. BR is a fun read, but if you are interested in Burton, read Ferocious Love- a true example of two folks who couldn’t live w/or w/o the other. Also agreeing with the praise for Lionel Shriver- her newest- Big Brother- is so compelling.

  25. BRE says:

    I just finished The Paris Wife a few weeks ago then followed up with Z: A novel of Zelda Fitzgerld. Reading them back to back seemed a good fit.

  26. Esmom says:

    Rats, I posted a comment earlier but my wifi went down so I think it got lost. I loved this book. Pasquale was my favorite, with his integrity and earnestness. I loved when he went and punched Michael Deane, who also was an amazingly well-drawm character.

    There was a lot of humor, too, I thought Richard Burton was a scream. He stole every scene he was in. I thought all the Cleopatra stuff was fascinating. I also thought Pat’s trip to the UK was hilarious (and pathetic). I’m happy he finally did right by his mom and wonder what he would have thought had he known Richard Burton was his father.

    I also thought the Donner screenplay was so funny — only in Hollywood would someone get paid so much for something that was considered a bomb.

    I think Jess Walter (I also thought he was a she until I Googled the name) is a great writer and this book had lots to say about how Hollywood and publicity has evolved and about art’s place in our culture in general. Plus it made me want to take a trip to Italy! Great read.

  27. Mairead says:

    Jaysis, when did we get all “intellectual” and stuff? I’m still trying to get through the Dexter series (and fight the urge to give the titular character a slap in the jaw), but I’ll catch up as soon as I can. 🙂

  28. Barbiegirl says:

    I read the book, and absolutely loved it… but then I could I not… I am Italian, worked in production in Los Angeles, and produced a play in Edinburgh… ah I forgot to mention that I got married next to the alleged Porto Vergogna.. and Rome is my favorite city in the world!!! I really recommend this book… Cross Creek is making a movie and it is going to be great!!! Great choice for the book club…

  29. cas says:

    One more suggestion for the book club, please can you do The Glass Castle, it is the most amazing book and one that is so great to discuss afterwards!

  30. Nimbolicious says:

    I enjoyed this book — but then again, aside from devouring celebrity gossip, reading is my favorite form of escapism. Give me a good story that jumps between interesting locales and eras and features sympathetic characters doing the best they can to navigate the vagaries and vicissitudes of life, and I’m hooked! And I loved the final chapter that fast-forwarded everything; it reminded me a little of the final montage of Six Feet Under. Nice message: We all labor under various illusions, but we live and love as best we can in the short time allotted to us.