It opens like a movie; you can almost hear the swelling soundtrack, promising a good old-fashioned, escapist story, even as it is imbued with a knowing — and often hilarious — satirical edge. And it ends like a movie, too, with a heaping helping of tied-up satisfaction … Beautiful Ruins is his Hollywood novel, his Italian novel and his Pacific Northwestern novel all braided into one: an epic romance, tragicomic, invented and reported (Walter knows his Cleopatra trivia), magical yet hard-boiled (think García Márquez meets Peter Biskind), with chapters that encompass not just Italy in the ’60s and present-day Hollywood, but also Seattle and Britain and Idaho, plot strands unfolding across the land mines of the last half-century — an American landscape of vice, addiction, loss and heartache, thwarted careers and broken dreams.
The book takes its title from Louis Menand’s New Yorker description of Richard Burton at 54. It takes its essence from Milan Kundera, in a passage about the elusiveness of the present moment. Yet not for nothing is Cleopatra the vortex of the novel: the great Hollywood debacle, the love story as train wreck, the project so crazy it made other, crazier projects look sensible by comparison. And yet it was a romance. Mr. Walter has built his book around Cleopatra as a monument to crazy love.
...lively prose, sharp transitions and an entertaining cast of characters … There are glitches. At times, Walter extends a moment two or three beats too long...At other times, Walter’s dialogue lands heavily … The quick reader will enjoy a plot that’s well constructed and also lively, shuttling fast between parents and long-lost children, books and movies, the Italian village Porto Vergogna with its ‘dozen old whitewashed houses’ and Claire’s coffee shop, where almost every table sports a ‘sullen white screenwriter in glasses, every pair of glasses aimed at a Mac Pro laptop, every Mac Pro open to a digitized Final Draft script.’ Time traveling, cross cutting, inter-textual and cross-cultural, this is The English Patient without the poetry or history.