Beautiful Ruins begins in 1962 in Porto Vergogna, a nearly deserted village along the Italian coastline. Pasquale Tursi is trying to build up the beach and daydreaming about constructing a tennis court to attract American tourists to his hotel when a mysterious guest arrives. A sickly American actress, fresh from the set of the movie Cleopatra, makes her way to the hotel, and Pasquale believes he has found love. The novel then jumps to present-day Hollywood. We meet Claire, a script reader for famous producer Michael Deane. She is about to call it quits and start a new job at a film museum funded by Scientologists when two people arrive to meet with her. One is a struggling writer; the other is Pasquale. In his broken English, Pasquale tells Claire he is looking for an American actress whom he met years ago.
The novel takes the reader on a journey from 1962 to the present, making a few side trips along the way. A large cast of characters are introduced, including the aforementioned parties, a failed ’90s rocker, a World War II vet hoping to write a novel, and members of the Donner party. Even Richard Burton makes an appearance. Walter remarkably manages to keep track of all of these characters and their storylines and blends them into a very satisfying tale. The characters are quite engaging, and the book is peppered with lush, almost cinematic descriptions of the varying landscapes, as well as Walter’s dry humor. Highly recommended.