This isn't the type of book I usually pick up, but it came highly recommended by people whose judgment I trust, and I'm so glad I picked it up.
Describing the plot is difficult, because it's a sort of meandering, densely interwoven plot that jumps back and forth between time periods (the present and Italy in the 1960s, among others). But it's the characters that pull the story along: Pasquale, the idealistic Italian with a good heart, trying to make a go of his father's penzione in a tiny town in Cinque Terra; Dee Moray, a lovely American actress recuperating in his penzione after a disastrous experience on the set of Cleopatra; a ruthless studio executive; a young writer/play-wright whose expectations of success center around a pitch of the Donner party story; a musician about to self-destruct, and so many others. What really amazed me about this book--aside from the lush quality of the writing--was the way the writer was able to make even unlikeable characters if not likeable, than understandable. I was also impressed by the complex story structure, the way different stories interrupted each other and then wove into each other. And while many of the stories, particularly in the middle, seemed depressing and hopeless, I was struck by the way Walter managed to bring them all together in a way that was both beautiful and inspiring without being too mawkish. If I were to sum up the theme of the book, it would be that life is often a "beautiful ruin," but it's worth living nonetheless.