In 1962, 20th Century Fox made a movie that almost bankrupted the studio and changed Hollywood forever.

The epic Cleopatra was shot on location in Italy and Egypt at a cost of more than $40 million in an age when no movie grossed that much. The real story, however, was between the film's two stars, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

Spokane author Jess Walter uses the film as the setup for his majestic new novel, a beach book that aspires to be something more, Beautiful Ruins (Harper, 352 pages, $25.99). Walter takes the book's title from a New Yorker story that described Burton in 1980 as "already a beautiful ruin," but virtually all the characters in Walter's novel fit the description. It's a parade of broken people, right down to a wannabe screenwriter from Beaverton.

As the story opens, Pasquale Tursi is the 22-year-old proprietor of a rundown hotel in an isolated fishing village on the Italian Riviera. Dee Moray, a blond American actress from Cleopatra, then filming in Rome, is smuggled in by boat to rest at Pasquale's hotel after being told she has stomach cancer. She's actually pregnant by Burton, another prominent character in the novel. Pasquale falls in love with Dee but is haunted by a child he fathered by a woman he can't marry due to social circumstances. 

Running parallel to the 1962 storyline, we're taken forward to find an aging Pasquale in the United States almost 50 years later. He is here to confront Michael Deane, the now-famous Hollywood producer who deceived Dee to protect Cleopatra's appeal, and to track down the onetime actress and her famously sired son. (Dee names the boy Pat, after Pasquale, and he leads a semi-successful career as a Portland rocker, whose shows even garner mention in "the Willamette Weekly.")

Beautiful Ruins is alternately poignant and laugh-out-loud funny as Walter demonstrates a dynamic range and a flawless ear for the distinctive voices of his characters. Take the Willamette Weekly's word for it: This is a delicious summer read.

GO: Jess Walter appears at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651, on Wednesday, June 27. 7:30 pm. Free.