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Book Club Kits: Beautiful Ruins

Alamance County Public Libraries offer Book Club Kits for check out to area book clubs. Each kit contains 10 copies of a book and a reading guide.

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Book Summary

The story begins in 1962. On a rocky patch of the sun-drenched Italian coastline, a young innkeeper, chest-deep in daydreams, looks out over the incandescent waters of the Ligurian Sea and spies an apparition: a tall, thin woman, a vision in white, approaching him on a boat. She is an actress, he soon learns, an American starlet, and she is dying.

And the story begins again today, half a world away, when an elderly Italian man shows up on a movie studio's back lot - searching for the mysterious woman he last saw at his hotel decades earlier.

What unfolds is a dazzling, yet deeply human, roller coaster of a novel, spanning 50 years and nearly as many lives. From the lavish set of Cleopatra to the shabby revelry of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Walter introduces us to the tangled lives of a dozen unforgettable characters: the starstruck Italian innkeeper and his long-lost love; the heroically preserved producer who once brought them together and his idealistic young assistant; the army veteran turned fledgling novelist, and the rakish Richard Burton himself, whose appetites set the whole story in motion - along with the husbands and wives, lovers and dreamers, superstars and losers, who populate their world in the decades that follow.

Gloriously inventive, constantly surprising, Beautiful Ruins is a story of flawed yet fascinating people, navigating the rocky shores of their lives while clinging to their improbable dreams.

Read an excerpt from the novel.

Discussion Questions

  • One of Jess Walter's concerns in Beautiful Ruins is how real life intersects and influences art. Talk about the numerous ways that idea plays out in the novel.

  • This is a work of social satire, skewering much in American culture. What are the many targets the author turns his satirical eye on? Is his aim accurate, fair, unfair?

  • Much has been made of the novel's humor? What do you find funny? Hotel Adequate View? Anything else?

  • The book's opening is reminiscent of a lush, epic romantic film—the beautiful dying Dee Moray steps off the boat and into Pasquale's heart. Although the book veers off new directions, is it still a love story? What kinds of love are presented in the novel? What, ultimately, does the novel have to say about love?

  • In what ways does Pat Bender resemble his biological father? Are genes destiny? Had you been Dee (or Debra), his mother, would you have told him who his father was?

  • The book's timeline, locales, different voices and unusual text treatments (Hollywood film pitch, biography, unfinished novel, how-to book) are jumbled. Did you find it confusing, hard to follow, irritating? Or was the variety intriguing? What might the author be hoping to achieve by scrambling everything up? How would the book be different if it were told in chronological order with a straightforward narrator?

  • Talk about contrast between the grand Hollywood projects of the past, like Cleopatra, and the reality show that Michael Deane and Claire are producing. What does it say about our current culture or collective imaginative life? Does Jess Walter suggest a solution to what he is criticizing?

  • What did you think, initially, of Shane's Donner Party pitch to Michael Deane? Did you agree with Michael...or laugh with Claire? 

  • Michael Deane says his great epiphany was "People want what they want." What does he mean? Do you agree with him? How did that revelation shape his career?

  • In addition to Michael Deane (in Question 9), each character has a powerful revelation in which they see themselves as they truly are and see the nature of life. What are the revelations of the other characters...and how do they shape their lives?

  • What is the significance of the novel's title? (It was first used by a journalist to describe Richard Burton many years after his marriage to Taylor.) Who else, or what, are the "beautiful ruins"?

  • Of the seven main characters, which is your favorite? Least favorite (don't all say Michael Deane)?

Jess Walters Answers Questions from GoodReads About Beautiful Ruins