Jess Walter’s ‘Beautiful Ruins’: Longing for Liguria and the Cinque Terre

Iconic summer read from Penguin - Beautiful Ruins, set in Italy

I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter had me at the multi-layered imagery on the outside – I was hooked before I’d even turned over to the blurb, let alone before I’d began to make my way through the novel itself. Just like the cover, the plot was composed of layers, and it also flipped backwards and forwards in time and around the world. What sounds chaotic and clunky actually is, in actuality, a story that becomes almost impossible to put down and perfectly evokes Italy in 1962.

The Italian part of the action is largely set just outside the Cinque Terre, in northern Italy, focusing on the fictional fishing village of Porto Vergogna (this translates as the Port of Shame). A boat approaches the bay, carrying a dying American actress named Dee Moray, who has come to stay and is destined to turn a young Italian man’s life upside down for a number of reasons. That man, Pasquale, is running the intriguingly named Hotel Adequate View in place of his father, who we learn has recently died, having passed on a ‘dream of tourism’ (p.4) to his son.

Stylish women posing on the steps against Italian skyline. Retro 1960s
Pasquale’s glamorous tourist dreams might have looked a bit like this. Credit: Vintage Italy, via Flickr (flickr.com/photos/75668732@N02/7991385278).

Dee’s arrival gives hope to Pasquale’s inherited vision of Porto Vergogna evolving into a leading tourist destination, ‘the destinazione turistica primaria he dreamed of’ (p.3), which he thinks should become the sixth element of the Cinque Terre (Five Lands), if only he can provide a beach for its prospective visitors and a sense of glamour. His high hopes, ‘imagining grubby little Porto Vergogna as an emergent resort town’ (p.2), are set to be challenged and they interestingly form a deep contrast to the somewhat bizarre name of the hotel.

‘“What kind of idiot says that the view from his hotel is only adequate?” said the fisherman.

“Bravo, Carlo,” said Alvis. “It’s perfect.”’ (p.64).

To refer to something as ‘adequate’ in tourism-speak is a bit like shooting yourself in the foot, but there’s something really charming about how important it is for Porto Vergogna not to dare to exceed expectations. The village has always been seen as something of an embarrassment or a disappointment, to both its residents and the people that pass through, so to call its hotel view ‘adequate’ seems to fit with the pessimistic mood and clash brilliantly with ‘il boom’, the feeling of Italian 1960s excess, which Pasquale sees signs of in Rome later in the story and perhaps feels has been denied to him by not being a part of the Cinque Terre. However, people love rooting for the underdog, and it’s easy to fall in love with shabby little Porto Vergogna, because it’s so self-aware.

Boats and buildings in the sunshine of Portofino by IK's World Trip
A glimpse of photo-ready Portofino. Credit: IK’s World Trip, via Flickr (flickr.com/photos/ikkoskinen/4844184917/sizes/z/in/photolist-8o4HpB-cgq9Zj/)

Novelist Jess Walter spent a lot of time in the Cinque Terre whilst writing the book, really getting to know the area and absorb all it has to offer. In fact, he lifted his Italian protagonist’s name from his travels.

‘We hiked the cliff-side trails and took pictures of each other, ate fish and bread, drank wine. We stayed in a place called Albergo Pasquale, and I took a business card from the owner and put it in my wallet. I loved the sound of that name, Pasquale, and the double meaning of his name: Passover, a man passed over by life. That card’s still in my wallet.’ (p.9 of the P.S. section, ‘In the Time of the Galley Slaves’).

Colourful buildings perched on the rocks in Cinque Terre by Brian Stacey
This is the postcard-friendly destination that our protagonist wants Porto Vergogna to be associated with: the Cinque Terre. Credit: Black Rock Photo, via Flickr (flickr.com/photos/29099219@N08/3443563010).

Whilst Porto Vergogna may be fictional, the descriptions of Italy show that Walter clearly immersed himself in the landscape, the language, the country and the people. Its final pages are truly beautiful, bringing us full circle in the narrative and pushing Liguria and the coastal settlements clinging to the rocks back into the frame once again. This was by no means an easy book to write (if there is such a thing), but his major breakthrough came whilst on a trip to Florence, when he was suddenly able to see new ways for the plot to develop and for things to come together. The story jumps to several different countries, including America, Scotland and England, but Italy ultimately caused him to give the book one last chance to come together, with the characters springing off the page.

For me, this novel was the collision of so many things that I’m fascinated by, with the threads all running through, from vintage culture, and Italy through the ages, to tourism and then the cult of the celebrity versus the normal person underneath. It was also the collision of the Italy I’ve experienced and the one I long to see. I might not have any chance of bumping into Pasquale and Dee, but I’ll be looking out for an echo of them in the hills.

To read more about the novel (spoiler alert), I’d recommend this interview with Jess Walter.

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