Jess Walter captured my imagination with the very first sentence of his sublime Beautiful Ruins, but only about half way through the novel did it dawn on me that I was reading something truly special.
At that point, Richard Burton makes a quite extraordinary cameo appearance accompanying the book's main protagonist, romantic hotelier Pasquale, from Rome to the Ligurian coast in pursuit of a young actress. I know as much as the next non-expert about Burton: the immense talent, the powerful and seductive Welsh voice, the marriages to Elizabeth Taylor and the tragic self-destruction. Walter delivers all of this in a tumultuous tour-de-force in which Burton stops neither drinking nor talking as the shell-shocked Pasquale holds on for dear life.
To explain Burton's appearance would be to give away too much of a splendid plot that races back and forth between decades and continents as Walter masterfully unfolds a story of love and of loss, of human weakness and resilience, of dignity, honour and dishonour. But his presence is both pivotal and completely exhilarating.
The opening sentences introduce Pasquale to Dee Moray, an aspiring starlet who mysteriously arrives in the isolated Italian village of Porto Vergogno. The events of a days prior to and after their meeting define the lives of Pasquale and Dee and of their families. It takes an author of enormous skill to be able to build those lives and reveal their secrets in a narrative that jumps back and forth between the 1960s and the present day (stopping at several decades in between) and from Italy to Hollywood and to Idaho.
Walter pulls it off with panache. Where the story crosses an ocean and 30 years between chapters the transition is seamless. The key to this are Walter's characters who are full-bodied in their humanity, convincing and charming.
I have long admired Walter's writing - I enjoyed the Land of the Blind and in a partial review of the brilliant Citizen Vince, I wondered if Jess Walter might be the second coming of Elmore Leonard. Where those books were both well-crafted thrillers (and Vince was very, very funny with it) Beautiful Ruins is different: a rich and dense novel, packed with drama, acute observation and emotion. (I challenge you not to shed tears in the final few pages).
It is - without question - the best book I've read in 2013, and against some stiff competition (I loved Kate Atkinson's Life After Life and Maggie O'Farrell's Instructions for a Heatwave) and is right up there my in my top 5 ever list. (For friends and family, that means you can start to expect to receive this book for birthdays and Christmas).
It's also worth pointing out that it has the most equisite cover for the Penguin UK edition.
If none of that is enough to make you read it, perhaps you'll take Richard Russo's word for it: "Why mince words? Beautiful Ruins is an absolute masterpiece."