Honestly, my very first reaction to this book was that I was disappointed that Jess Walter is a man. What with the girly script and New Girl's Jess Day fresh in my mind (did you guys see what happened yesterday?!) I just automatically assumed that Jess Walter was a lady author. I was wrong. There was a very prominent and chiseled fancy man pictured on the back cover flap.
Luckily, I got over it pretty quickly and my disappointment in the author's gender didn't hinder my enjoyment of his story. This book was lovely. I read it all in one day, the largest chunk of which I spent pigging out at Pita Jungle, eating shawarma and baklava and drinking tangy fruit-flavored iced tea. It was a good day.
The plot of Beautiful Ruins is hard to describe. There's a young Italian man in a very small village who watches as a beautiful dying American actress comes to stay at his villa. There's a Hollywood film producer and his increasingly jaded assistant in the present day. An aging musician halfway around the world has a midlife crisis. And in the 1960s, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton are shooting that famous disaster of a film, Cleopatra, as their affair is splashed all over the headlines. There are a bunch of characters and plot threads and time jumps in this story, but the way that Walter weaves all of them together into a cohesive whole is one of the main pleasures of the book. I got this sense of elation as everything started coming together near the end that only happens with the really good stuff.
This story was sad and happy and joyful and terrible and wonderful, and I loved it.
(My only complaint was that something about the ending felt . . . off. And I can't figure out what it was. I was all set and ready to give this five stars (I could feel it in the build up), and I still might when I come back for the inevitable re-read, but for now only four and a half because the ending kinda jarred me out of the lovely little funk I was in reading it almost straight through, for hours and hours. Either way I'm on a roll with books this year. So many great ones right out of the gate.)