Jess Walter’s novel, Beautiful Ruins, is entertaining, but the work seems scattered because the author has so many people and narrative styles running through it that the reader loses sight of a main character.
If the book does have a main character, he might be Mr. Tursi, who has American-sized dreams as he raises the profile of his coastal Italian hotel. In the 1960s, Tursi’s life changes when a mysterious actress comes ashore. The actress, Dee Moray, is on leave from the Hollywood production, “Cleopatra.” The story then jumps in time to contemporary Hollywood, where we see Tursi searching for Moray much later in his life. What happens in-between comprises Beautiful Ruins, by way of non-linear storytelling.
But instead of focusing on these or at least a manageable group of characters, Walter proceeds to give a host of other characters valuable space. To mention only several: in the here and now of Hollywood, we meet film-makers dealing with the frustrations of delayed dreams, along with a villainous producer who was on the set of “Cleopatra” so many years before. Meanwhile, back in the ‘60s, Walter sketches in a war veteran who holes up at Tursi’s hotel to write a novel. Then Richard Burton arrives to mooch drinks from the veteran or whoever might plausibly be in charge of a nearby flask.
With the exception of a few annoying tangents, the scenes with Burton and the rest provide quality entertainment, but the book might have been less diffuse if Walter had settled down with a smaller cast.