I’ll start this review by giving particular props to the narration on the audiobook. As a newcomer to the world of audiobooks, Beautiful Ruins earned the distinction of being the first where I can honestly say the audio narration elevated the reading/listening experience and did more than just get the job done. I was not surprised when I learned that it won an award for the format in its year of eligibility. So good on you, Edoardo Ballerini.
The story is one of those where different narratives across time and places spiral together toward a point of confluence by the end of the book. It’s an effective structure when done well, and this one essentially was. I could have done completely without the perspective of Shane Wheeler, the guy who seems to court success at every turn despite being in fact thoroughly mediocre. Even though by the time we meet him, his marriage has failed and it appears the unfeeling Hollywood machine also has no sympathy or patience for his entitlement, it’s his own arrogance, mistaking his failing upward for meritocratic gains, that leads him to stall his personal and professional lives to pursue that supremely navel-gazing idea of “fulfillment.” In short, it’s not like Shane is celebrated by this story, but I’m bored of him (and IRL people like him) nonetheless.
Much more interesting is the exploration of toxic narcissism in the form of someone like Michael Deane, who unironically claims that his true talent is knowing what people want better than they know it — how coincidental that what they REALLY want is also wholly beneficial to his own interests — and who callously sets about “granting” those wants for people without ever so much as stopping to reflect on how that actually turned out for anyone other than himself.
In addition to these two, there are five other main characters who get their place in the sun. Though the whole story revolves around former actress Dee Moray, we don’t get to hear from her until the last third of the book — to check in with her sooner would probably give away too much of the “mystery” around her — and even that snippet from her is an inauspicious snapshot of her post-Hollywood life, particularly her foray into indie stage acting and her marriage to her former husband. She is mostly a symbol, a Damsel in Distress. We meet her in the remote Italian fishing town where she, believing she is dying, is abandoned by the man she is meant to meet, and, even later in life, having managed to live through that scare, she’s left in succession by her husband and her troubled, wayward son. Men alternatively disappoint her or are enchanted by her, or both, but she’s drawn entirely in relation to them. Even her own section dooms her to be fending off unwanted advances from scorned acquaintances and chasing down her husband, being too liberal with the local happy hour. She seems like a tragic figure who wonders, and makes you wonder, what could have been, but she is possessed of an inner strength and tranquility that, unlike my favorite bitch-eating-crackers Shane Wheeler, allows her to find contentment in smaller dreams and not take for granted that she “deserved” more.
There’s more, and I’ve gone on long enough. In truth, I pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Beautiful Ruins. I tend to read mostly “genre,” and this is not. It’s simple, and restrained, and despite the fictional representation of actual Richard Burton, it’s realistic and grounded without being cynical. I’m glad I got around to reading it after putting it off for so long, and especially glad I opted for the audio.