Laura Rereading: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

One of my 2020 reading resolutions is to do more re-reading. It’s taken me until February to re-read my first novel of the year, but I’ve finally got started!


Before re-reading: I first read this in August 2013, when I was 26. I bought it from Mr B’s bookshop in Bath and then started reading it on one of those fake beaches that some English towns and cities set up, sitting on a deckchair in the middle of the pavement. (As it turns out, this was a PERFECT location to start this novel). However, although I had incredibly fond and vivid memories of the experience of reading Beautiful Ruins, I remembered almost nothing about the novel itself, other than it was funny and had a great cover.

The first time I read Beautiful Ruins, I wrote that the novel is about a meeting between ‘Italian fisherman and hopeful hotelier Pasquale‘ and ‘American starlet Dee Moray [in 1962]… an encounter that [Pasquale] will never forget, even fifty years later. However, Pasquale already has one doomed love affair behind him, separated from his first love, Amedea, and from his son Bruce. In the present day, Claire Silver struggles with her role as a film development assistant, longing to be involved in the production of at least one movie she really believes in; will aspiring scriptwriter Shane’s pitch about the controversial historical figure of William Eddy be the one? Meanwhile, her boss, Michael Deane, has written a failed memoir of his own. A few years earlier, musician and comedian Pat also struggles to restart his career by a last-ditch tour at the Edinburgh Festival, while around the time of Pasquale and Dee’s first meeting, writer Alvis Bender reworks the single chapter of his novel that he has managed to produce over and over again.’

My first review of this novel focused heavily on the idea that it is a ‘complex mess’ of plots, very few of which have firm conclusions, arguing that I enjoyed these loose ends and was actually quite disappointed that Pasquale and Dee’s story was more neatly tied up. I also got quite interested in the different fictional techniques that Walter uses to tell the stories of these different characters – film scripts, war memoirs, pitches and plays. I also emphasised what I still think is the central point of this novel: ‘The parallel stories of ruination traced across the lives of Alvis, Pat and Shane seemed to me to speak most interestingly about the questions raised by Walter’s concept of lives as inevitable “failures”‘.

After re-reading: While I don’t exactly disagree with my previous review of Beautiful Ruins, I was struck by how much better Pasquale and Dee’s story worked for me this time round. The two characters are, as Walter intended, the emotional heart of the novel, and I think, while their story may have the neatest ending, it also provides a great counterpoint to what would otherwise be a too-neat message of the novel: the idea that everyone’s lives are ‘beautiful ruins’. Pasquale makes a key moral choice near the end of this novel that feels both heartbreaking and uplifting, and it was this scene that really struck me when I re-read this book. While Pasquale’s life has not turned out like he planned, I don’t believe it can be seen to be ‘ruined’; he has done what he thought was right, and ends up surrounded by a happy family in his old age.

I’m not sure why I found it so much easier to invest emotionally in Pasquale, in particular, this time around. Maybe I’m simply getting softer in my old age (!!) or perhaps this novel came to me this time round when I felt especially ready to be moved. I think one big advantage of re-reads is that you can match them so much more closely to your emotional mood, partly because there isn’t the pressure of reading a new title and partly because you already have a sense of what they contain. At any rate, I hesitated a little while before reading the final scene of Beautiful Ruins, wanting to make sure that I was in the right headspace to fully appreciate it. 

Rating in 2013: ****

Rating in 2020: ****1/2


12 thoughts on “Laura Rereading: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

  1. I’ve not read any Jess Walter, but this has been on my TBR for 7 years according to Goodreads! The themes and setting do sound appealing, though I think I’d be hard pressed to replicate as meaningful a reading experience as you had the first time around. I love it when I can firmly associate a book with where and when I read it. (Funny aside: I always thought Jess was a woman, as in short for Jessica, I guess because the cursive font on the U.S. cover made me think it was closer to chick lit.) I like your theory about being able to have greater emotional connections with rereads. I hope we will both manage some more worthwhile rereads soon!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hah: that *is* a perfect place to read this book! It’s one that I really enjoyed as well. There are so many layers in it. I’d like to read some of his short stories too!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Thoughts on the Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist, 2020 | Laura Tisdall

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