ANDREW FFRENCH enjoys a convoluted tale of love, loss and regret, set on the beautiful Italian Riviera IT’S an understatement to say that Beautiful Ruins is not a novel with a linear narrative.

One critic described it as a “high-wire feat of bravura storytelling” and I would certainly go along with that.

Walter spent 15 years completing this story, which is perhaps why the plot does not unravel in a particularly straight-forward way.

The bittersweet tale keeps breaking off at a tangent, and normally I would find this frustrating and give up, but I found the plot intriguing, and the confident writing style persuaded me to keep turning the pages.

The premise of the story is an intriguing one, to say the least.

Back in 1962, Hollywood actress Dee Moray checks into a pretty grotty hotel in Cinque Terre on the Italian Riviera.

As I had visited the rugged coastal resort back in the 1990s, I was able to picture the scene.

According to the scenario painted by Walter, which I found a little far-fetched, Dee is carrying the child of rabble-rousing Welsh actor Richard Burton, after they met on the set of blockbuster movie Cleopatra, when scenes were being shot in Rome.

When Burton was not rowing with Taylor, according to Beautiful Ruins, he was with Dee Moray, one of the extras on the multi-million dollar project.

But film industry fixer Michael Deane does not want the press to be distracted from Burton and Taylor by Dee Moray, so he convinces her that she might have stomach cancer, instead of being pregnant, and packs her off to Porto Vergogna.

After she checks into the only hotel in the village, its caring owner Pasquale Tursi falls for Moray then discovers Deane’s deceit and confronts him in Rome.

But it turns out that Tursi has his own shameful secret — he has fathered a child with a teacher in Florence and then abandoned the baby.

And so a pattern begins to emerge, with Walter outlining the hopes and dreams of couples immediately after they meet, followed by the detailing of the breakdown of these relationships.

Despite introducing lots of new characters throughout the novel, Walter keeps returning to Cinque Terre and Tursi and Moray’s unrequited love.

A story about love, loss and regret, which keeps going off at a tangent, doesn’t sound particularly gripping or uplifting, but when I’d finished the novel I thought Walter had produced an outstanding book.

The problem with introducing so many new characters throughout, including Clare Silver, Michael Deane’s assistant; Alvis Bender, a regular guest at the hotel in Cinque Terre who ends up marrying Dee Moray; and Dee’s son Pat; is that none of them can be particularly well delineated.

And the decision to blend fact and fiction by involving Richard Burton left me feeling a little uneasy, yet wanting to find out more about Burton and Taylor and the filming of Cleopatra.

Walter’s book is rooted in Italy in the 1960s, but takes in plenty of other locations along the way, including several in the United States, and the Edinburgh Festival.

Despite so many different changes of direction, both in terms of the plot and location, the many different strands of Beautiful Ruins are brought together successfully at the end.

Once asked to describe the novel at an author event, Walter said it was “a multigenerational, multi-genre, multi-point-of-view book about 1960s Italy, present-day Hollywood, World War II, and the Donner Party (a California Trail wagon train of American pioneers who, in 1846, found themselves trapped in the snow in the Sierra Nevada).

Could Walter have improved Beautiful Ruins by ditching some of the sub-plots?

Perhaps, but after finishing the first draft, the author abandoned lots of material, so he must have decided that all the different avenues he pursued were the right ones.

Walter has written a memorable story about how people end up remembering encounters, or moments in their lives as being particularly significant, and then either move on or dwell on them forever.

I had to suspend my disbelief on one or two occasions, but on the whole I enjoyed this convoluted yarn.

If you are lucky enough to be heading off to Italy any time soon, then why not pack a copy? If no holiday romance materialises then at least you will have a decent book to keep you entertained.

The author:

A FORMER National Book Award finalist, and winner of the Edgar Allan Poe Award, American novelist Jess Walter is the author of eight books.

His work has been translated into more than 20 languages and his essays, short fiction, criticism and journalism have been widely published in Best American Short Stories, Best American Nonrequired Reading, Harper’s, Esquire, McSweeney’s, Byliner, Playboy and Details.

His previous books include The Financial Lives of Poets, The Zero, Citizen Vince, Land of the Blind, Over Tumbled Graves and Every Knee Shall Bow.

The Zero was finalist for the 2006 National Book Award, the 2007 PEN Center Literary Award and the 2007 LA Times Book Prize and was winner of the 2007 Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award, while Citizen Vince was winner of the 2005 Edgar Allan Poe Award for best novel.

Walter, 48, lives with his wife Anne and children Brooklyn, Ava and Alec in his childhood home of Spokane, in the US state of Washington.