06/08/2012 04:47 pm ET Updated Aug 08, 2012

'Beautiful Ruins,' Big Dreams

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter is a marvel, an absolute gem of a beach read (or park read, or subway read, or hell, sit by the fire in the winter read -- it is just a great read!) that is both hilarious (I laughed out loud again and again during the torture of a packed Metro North ride where laughing is no easy feat) and heartbreaking (luckily, I was alone at home by then and could give vent to the tears). With the title referring to Louis Menand's right-on description of Richard Burton, the actor plays a role in the novel, providing a backdrop of suavity and drunkenness and besottedness (with his Liz) against which the other characters stake rich claims of dreaming big, wanting more, and taking on the world -- and being taken right back down again by the reality of circumstances and the fickleness of fate.

But in the end, circumstances (war, pregnancy, unemployment and misemployment) and fate (car wrecks, illness, movie flops, and being left unloved and penniless in Edinburgh) are not enough to keep the dreamers in this lovely novel down. Ruined they might be, but beautiful too, and with a beauty that lights their ways through whatever darkness they fall into -- and back into the light, where they find themselves in places, and with people, they never dreamed of.

Pasquale dreams of building up his small pensione on the Italian coast and making it a popular hotel; Claire dreams of making good movies and finding a good man; Dee dreams of being a movie star; Alvis dreams of writing a great novel; Michael dreams of recapturing past glory (and youth); Pat dreams of being a music legend; Shane dreams of making it big with the Donner Party; Burton dreams of Liz; and Daryl dreams of porn.

Where will all this dreaming lead? I cannot tell and you will never guess. In all his books, Jess Walter is smart and generous and prodigious, and Beautiful Ruins is no exception. Surprises abound but Walter keeps his plot tethered to reality, resonating and reverberating and building to a conclusion that is as satisfying as it is gratifying. Dreams can come true, just not the ones you expected.

'Be brave in love and in life' is the message I got from Beautiful Ruins. Jess Walter himself is brave, flinging his characters (whom he clearly loves) out in the world, through time and across continents, in and out of crazy and not-so-crazy situations, and allowing them (and us) to come to some very profound realizations about the making of dreams. Why is it we always want to make our dreams come true through things we don't have? The best dreams are rooted in all that we do have -- and have the best chances of coming true.