Every summer, the beach-read conundrum begins whether to slog virtuously through Anna Karenina or Infinite Jest, or succumb to the kind of Fifty Shades of Tattooed Twilight genre pulp that practically shrieks to passersby, ''Why, yes, I did buy this on layover at the Miami-Dade airport!'' Bless the latest from Jess Walter (The Financial Lives of the Poets) for offering a near-perfect rendezvous between those distant poles a novel whose decade- and continent- hopping ingenuity expertly scratches the seasonal itch for both literary depth and dazzle.
Beautiful Ruins opens less like a book than a Fellini-movie swoon: A gorgeous American starlet lands in a tiny village (really more of a rocky outcropping) on the Italian coast, circa 1962. What is she running from? And why is she sure that she's dying? The answer, spooled out over nearly 350 pages, brings readers to modern-day Hollywood, with its harried assistants, silk-pajamaed producers, and mercenary reality-show pitches; the grody punk squats of London and Edinburgh; the rural outreaches of Idaho; and beyond.
That Walter is able to juggle his sprawling cast including one legendary real-life movie star and hopscotching timelines is an impressive novelistic trick. But it's the beating heart in Ruins that makes it beautiful. A–