Should Your Book Club Read Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter?

Should your book club read Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter?  Yes, absolutely.  If you’re not in a book club (poor you), you should read it anyway.  It’s funny and charming and compelling.  And very thought-provoking.  There’s a lot of serious stuff going on beneath the humor in this book.  I laughed at parts and I cried at others.  This was Literary Masters’ choice for September, and it was a huge hit!

Warp-speed plot summary:  It’s 1962 Italy and the stunning Dee Moray arrives in the beautiful but forgotten seaside village Porto Vergogna on the Ligurian coast.  Our hero Pasquale is immediately smitten with her.  For reasons I won’t go into here, she disappears from his life, and fifty years later he embarks on a quest to find her.  The reader is zipped along from Italy to Seattle, with stops that include Edinburgh, Rome, and Hollywood along the way.  Each place is brimming with unforgettable characters–each one more human than the next.

So what can your book club talk about? 

Well, you’ll want to start by asking my favorite question:  What is this book about?

This elicited quite a few different answers, largely because this book has a lot going on in it.  A few themes stand out, though, and you’ll want to ‘dig deep’ into each one.  For example, you’ll want to talk about living the life you think you should be living versus really living the one you’re in.  And speaking about the life you should be living, who has imposed that “should”?  Who has dictated the narrative of how your life should be led?   

One’s identity and how it is formed is related to this, and you’ll want to consider what the book is saying here.  For example, how are our identities shaped by our culture?  And who shapes or makes our culture in the first place?  Who has the power to do so?

The theme of storytelling runs throughout the novel–you’ll want to ponder:  who gets to tell the stories that reflect and/or shape our culture?   And how do I create the narrative of my own life?  And who owns my story and why do I relinquish the telling of my story to someone else?

You’ll also want to talk about the characters’ quests for fame.  Why are they so intent on being seen by others?  Is this just human nature?  And you’ll want to discuss the relationship between fame and art.  What is the book saying about this?

Shane’s motto is “act as if,” which seems particularly relevant to today’s “social media generation.”  Or perhaps people have always done this.  Perhaps people have always been projecting an image to others of how we want to be perceived.  Your book club can decide…

The characters that seemed to stand apart from the others were Pasquale and Michael Deane.  You’ll want to talk about the innocence of Pasquale–and why he chose to do what he did–and you’ll want to talk about…the incredibly unique Michael Deane.  One of my groups spent quite a long time trying to decide whether he is a narcissist or just a control freak.  Or both.

We talked a lot about what motivated the characters, and we ‘dug deep’ into the theme of desire in the novel.  “People want what they want.”  You’ll want to give this statement a lot of thought.

The Donner Party chapter is one you’ll want to discuss.  I was fascinated by how we came at this from different perspectives.   For example, is the main point that Eddy is a hero whose story isn’t told?  Can there even be a hero if there is no story?  Or is the point that, although there is a heroic person and story to be told, the audience is more interested in hearing about cannibalism?  Are we to draw the parallel between the cannibals of the Donner Party–eating each other to survive–and Hollywood–where much the same thing goes on?

The pillbox with the paintings also generated a lot of discussion.  Is it true art if no one sees it?  Why did Pasquale and Dee Moray invent the story about the artist?  And why was the “truth” so far from what they had imagined?  What is the book saying about truth and reality?  Your book club can have some deeply philosophical discussions, if you’re so inclined.

You’ll want to consider the epigraphs and their significance, if any, and you’ll want to do the same for the title.

Well, I could go on, but I think this should get you started.  This wonderful novel has landed on more than one “Best of” lists for 2012 (if you “like” Literary Masters on Facebook, you can find a link to many of the “Best of 2012” lists), and I think you’ll agree that it deserves all the praise.  Let me know how your book group enjoys it!

One thought on “Should Your Book Club Read Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter?

  1. At first I found the book interesting, but the more I read, the less I wanted to read – I found most of the characters missing an important ingredient – a personality – and if it were not for mentioning Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton now and then, the book would have been completely dumb. As more characters were introduced, they became more shallow. Nothing really tied these people together in any meaningful way.

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