Simply Beautiful: Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter


     On the rugged, Mediterranean coast of Italy, a land of five towns clings stunningly to the edge of the cliffs;  accessible only by boat, offering fresh seafood pulled daily from the Ligurian sea by men whose families have done the same for centuries and a hiding place from the modern world, the Cinque Terre seems just the place for Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor to have sought refuge during the filming of Cleopatra in Rome.  In Jess Walter’s sumptuous novel Beautiful Ruins, they do just this.  And the tale of the IT couple’s visit to Porto Vergogna, a lonely innkeeper, a starlet, star-crossed lovers, a wannabe screenwriter (whose big concept is “Donner!,” a movie about the Donner party,) a nauseating Hollywood producer and fifty years of frustrated confusion make the novel one of my top five reads.


    According to Jess Walter’s website (, Beautiful Ruins has been recognized by just about everyone as one of the novels of the year 2012:

*Esquire’s Best book of 2012
*NPR-Fresh Air best Novel of 2012
*Audible and Salon best audio book of 2012
*New York Times Notable Book of the Year
*Washington Post Notable Book of the Year
*In UK, Guardian, Times and Sunday Times Best Books of the Year
*Best books of the year: Entertainment Weekly, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, San Francisco Chronicle, Miami Herald, Seattle Times, The Oregonian, St. Louis Today, Kansas City Star, Goodreads, Hudsons, Barnes and Noble, Amazon

Read the NYT review here:

   From the first sentence, the reader is immersed in the world of the book.

     The dying actress arrived in his village the only way one could come directly — in a boat that motored into the cover, lurched past the rock jetty, and bumped against the end of the pit.  She wavered a moment in the boat’s stern, then extended a slender hand to grip the mahogany railing; with the other, she pressed a wide-brimmed hat against her head.  All around her, shards of sunlight broke on the flickering waves.

     Twenty meters away, Pasquale Tursi watched the arrival of the woman as if in a dream.  Or rather, he would think later, a dream’s opposite:  a burst of clarity after a lifetime of sleep.

     How Pasquale Tursi (proprietor of the ingeniously-named “Hotel Adequate View”) winds up in the office of Hollywood producer Michael Deane some fifty years later must be left to the reader’s own enjoyment.  I won’t spoil a second of it.  I just want to feature one more passage from the book, which I read and re-read and it still makes me snort with laughter.

     The first impression one gets of Michael Deane is of a man constructed of wax, or perhaps prematurely embalmed.  After all these years, it may be impossible to trace the sequence of facials, spa treatments, mud baths, cosmetic procedures, lifts and staples, collagen implants, outpatient touch-ups, tannings, Botox injections, cyst and growth removals, and stem-cell injections, that have caused a seventy-two-year-old man to have the face of a nine-year-old Filipino girl.BeautifulRuins_small-330-exp

     Suffice it to say that, upon meeting Michael for the first time, many people stare open-mouthed, unable to look away from his glistening, vaguely lifeline face.  Sometimes they cock their head to get a better angle, and Michael mistakes their morbid fascination for attraction, or respect or surprise that someone his age could look this good, and it is this basic misunderstanding that causes him to be even more aggressive in fighting the aging process.

     The novel is now available in paperback and I urge you to read it.  Right now.  Read it yourself.  Add it to your book club’s reading list (for next month), recommend it to everyone you know.  It’s just that good.


My book club read this book in December and in order to tie the holidays and the book together, I presented the Italian Christmas Feast of the Seven Fishes.  You may want to go a bit simpler, but this is what I did, all accompanied by some beautiful Italian wines, of course.

1.  Bruschetta with anchovies (lots of these recipes on

2.  Fried calamari (I ordered this)

3.  Artichoke and shrimp dip

4.  Potatoes topped with caviar and sour creme

5.  Cioppino

6.  Linguine with white clam sauce (I use the recipe on the can of clams!)

7.  Smoked salmon on toast points with cream cheese, capers, diced onions

Artichoke & Shrimp Dip:  1 cup of mayonnaise, 1 cup of parmesan cheese, 1 can of artichoke hearts and 1 cup of baby shrimp.  Put all in mixing bowl, mix until well blended.  Place dip in appropriate size baking dish and bake at 350 for 20 minutes or so, until hot and bubbly.

Potatoes:  Boil small potatoes until tender.  Scoop out top, leaving skin on.  Top with sour cream and a spoonful of caviar.

Cioppino:  Heat 1/3 cup olive oil in a large stockpot.  Add 2 chopped medium potatoes, 2 carrots, peeled and chopped, 1 onion chopped and 2 garlic cloves, chopped.  Season with salt and cook on medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until vegetables are tender.  Then turn the heat to high, add 3/4 cup dry dry Italian Pinot Grigio and deglaze pan, leaving brown bits in.  Cook until most of liquid evaporates.  Add 1 28 oz can of crushed tomatoes, 1 cup water and 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes.  Reduce the heat to a simmer.  Cook and cover until the vegetables are tender.  After about 20 minutes, add 1 1/2 pounds of skinless white fish such as halibut, cod or char, cut into 3/4 inch chunks.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until cooked through.  Season the stew with salt to taste then drizzle with olive oil and serve.  (Adapted from Giada at Home cookbook by Giada de Laurentiis)


There’s a Cleopatra soundtrack from the 1963 movie with Taylor and Burton available on iTunes that would be really fun.

If you are doing the book with the Seven Fishes at Christmas, you could also do a Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra Christmas album.


A movie is in the works and casting has actually begun.  Imogene Poots will play Dee, the American ingenue.  But apparently the rest of the cast hasn’t been announced, or at least I couldn’t find it.

May I suggest:

Claire Silver:  Emily Blunt

Shane Wheeler:  Garrett Hedlund

Pasquale:  I hereby volunteer to go to Italy and conduct the casting search.

Michael Deane:  OH MY this is too fun.  Who to cast in this role?  You know, Tom Cruise did such a great job with this type of character in Tropic Thunder, it would be fun to see him in this type of role.  You absolutely couldn’t cast someone in their seventies — I don’t think.  Michael Douglas?  Bruce Willis?  I would have to go though with Danny DeVito I think.

   In conclusion, oh dear friends, DO READ this book.  You will adore it.


Mothers and Daughters: Three Generations of Consequences

“They met on a bench in St. James’s Park; it was the 6th of June 1935. Lorna was crying because she had had a violent argument with her mother; Matt was feeding the wildfowl. … He looked sideways, and was done for.”

St. James

  And (to borrow a phrase from another Penelope Lively title) that’s how it all begins.  Matt and Lorna fall in love, marry, move to a rural cottage on the outskirts of nowhere without running water, heat or any amenity at all (which Lorna loves despite her upper class background).  Matt supports them with his art for which he finds a publisher.  And he paints their walls with with the scene of the park, the “tumbling willows, the rippling water” and the ducks.  Upstairs in the bedroom, he paints “Dancing figures.  Pink.  Nude, but discretely so.  Male and female.  Who hold out their arms to one another, link arms, swirl around the walls of the room.”

Matt goes to war, Lorna gives birth to Molly, Molly gives birth to Ruth, Ruth gives birth to Jess and some fifty or so years later, a post-divorce Ruth rediscovers the (Matisse-like) paintings.

Ruth was amazed, transfixed.  It was as though the room were filled with life — a mysterious, silent Matissecelebratory life that danced on and on, had done so ever since . . . ever since they were here.  Him and Her.  Matt and Lorna.  She felt a rush of happiness, a burst of joy, as though something flowed through time, from then to now, from them to herself.  She turned to Brian with a great smile, and saw that he too was beaming; for a moment they seeme
d to be compact, an alliance of delight.

He said, “Aren’t they wonderful?  Every morning, they remind me that life is to be enjoyed.”

She said, “My mother was born in here.”

     Dame Penelope Lively has twice been shortlisted for the Booker Prize; once in 1977 for her first novel, The Road to Lichfield, and again in 1984 for According to Mark. She later won the 1987 Booker Prize for her novel Moon Tiger. According to Penguin, her publisher, she has one daughter, one son and four grandchildren.  She was born in 1933, and though not old enough to have experienced romance at Lorna’s age, she has lived through each of the generations about which she writes in Consequences.  No less than Ursula K. Le Guin reviewed the novel for London’s The Guardian.  As Ms. Le Guin points out, Consequences treads much of the same ground in other Lively novels.  In other novels in general.  England.  WW2.  The blitz.  The Swinging 60s.  But her story-telling is impeccable and the generational quality of this novel adds the warp and weft of a beautiful family quilt.

Years later, she would think that you do not so much make decisions, as stumble in a certain direction because something tells you that that is the way you must go.  You are impelled, by some confusion of instinct, will, and blind faith.  Reason does not much come into it.  If reason ruled, you would not leave home in the morning, lest you stepped under a bus; you would not try, for fear of failure; you would not love, in case it hurt.

Years later, that time has lost all chronology; it is a handful of scenes that replay from time to time.

     And this is as fine a summary of the book as any I could do.  It is a handful of scenes, snapshots of time and people that connect to create interwoven lives and consequences.


  Near the end of the book, Ruth has a fateful dinner with Brian.  The menu from that dinner would make a fine one for a book club discussion.

Green salad


Lamb Chops

    My grandmother taught me to make mashed potatoes.  You peel the potatoes then put them in water to cover the potatoes.  Boil down, WITHOUT BURNING, the potatoes so that the water is absorbed.  Mash with the electric mixer, adding salt, pepper, butter and cream (or half and half) until the potatoes are smooth.  Place in a casserole dish and pepper the top.  Put a large pat of butter in the middle and heat when you are ready to serve.

Here’s a Giada de Laurentiis recipe for grilled lamb chops that looks good:

  I would serve English biscuits for dessert.  I love the McVities chocolate covered digestives and found them recently in the foreign food section of Kroger.  They pair very nicely with Caramel Ice Cream.


From WW2 to 1980s; from England to Greece.  The options are huge.  Here are some songs I thought of while reading.

I’ll Be Seeing You, Frank Sinatra

The White Cliffs of Dover, Vera Lynn

A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, Vera Lynn

Downtown, Petula Clark

She Loves You, The Beatles

Moonlight Serenade, Glenn Miller Orchestra