Jess Walter's latest novel starts out on the sunny Italian riviera in 1962, as the young heir of his family's tiny hotel attempts to build a beach on the rocky coastline. Pasquale Tursi daydreams of bringing success and tourism to his forgotten village, the poor cousin of the Cinque Terre towns nearby. When he sees a beautiful American in a boat heading toward his hotel, he's sure it's a mistake; visitors to his little pensione in Porto Vergogna are few and far between. Yet the beautiful Dee Moray, an actress who's just finished filming Cleopatra with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, has indeed reserved a room at his hotel.
Thus begins the dreamlike meeting that changes Pasquale's life in Beautiful Ruins. When Dee smiles at him, Pasquale falls in love, and "would remain in love for the rest of his life -- not so much with the woman, whom he didn't even know, but with the moment." However, Dee has a mysterious illness that may doom her to an unknown fate, and Pasquale realizes that he must take another path to do what is right in his life.
We next jump to the present time, when Claire, assistant to Michael Deane, Hollywood director, puts up with crazy film proposals on "Wild Pitch Friday." Her latest wild pitch is for "Donner!" based on the Donner party's last days, with a young wannabe screenwriter. In the middle of the meeting, an older Italian gentleman shows up looking for her boss, in hopes of finding a film star he met many years ago, named Dee Moray. Michael's long-ago connection to her is revealed, and it's a rather shady one. Is she still alive?
The two sagas, of Pasquale's life in Italy and of the fate of the American actress, thus become intertwined in chapters alternating between the two time periods. This book is full of stories, richly peopled by colorful characters, all striving to find love and success, despite their failures and missed chances. Along the way, Walter skewers aspects of modern culture, the current rage of reality TV shows, and Hollywood vanity,
The theme of loss of beauty with the passage of time flows through the book. The beautiful ruins of Roman civilization, the lost town of Porto Vergogna, the ruined lives of once-famous stars Burton and Taylor, all must pass. Set in Italy, Hollywood, and the Pacific Northwest, Walter meditates on what is still left in the end, in this tragic, comic, and yet ultimately romantic novel.