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Source: Review copy from Crown Publishers
Rating; ★★★★★

“I wouldn’t feel too bad for old Pierre, luv.”

“Why not?”

“Well, let me put it this way.  It has served as a chapel for a burnt-down abbey, a tomb for a desecrated royal corpse, a telegraph tower for the revolutionaries, a dusty wheat warehouse for the Russians, and even a munitions depot for the Paris Commune.  I think it’s about time it’s overlooked, don’t you think?” Max said.  “It’s earned its anonymity.”

Shelley found herself agreeing with him.  It was, perhaps, no different from curling under the covers after a long and hard day.  “But still,” she said, “I’m sure it must get lonely.”

(from Before Ever After)

Before Ever After is one of those books that is so good, you can’t stop thinking about it long enough to choose your next book.  I was upset when I finished this one, simply because it was over and I wasn’t ready to detach myself from the world Samantha Sotto created in what is hard for me to believe is her first novel.  I couldn’t help but notice how much her writing style reminded me of Erica Bauermeister’s (click to read my reviews of The School of Essential Ingredients and Joy for Beginners), so it’s easy to see why I gobbled this book up so quickly and absolutely loved it.

Before Ever After is the story of Shelley, an American living in London who impulsively decides to go on a European tour after quitting her job.  She’s immediately drawn to the tour guide, an eccentric man with a love of chickens, baked egg and cheese breakfasts on Sundays, and the Bee Gees.  No matter how hard she tries to resist Max, no matter how many times she told herself never to fall in love because she saw how broken and lost her mother was after her father’s death, she can’t help but marry him.  The book opens with Max’s death in a train bombing, and three years later, Shelley is the lost, broken widow she always feared becoming.

When Paolo arrives on her doorstep claiming to be Max’s grandson, eerily looking just like the Max she married, and insisting he is alive and well in the Philippines, Shelley doesn’t know what to believe.  Sitting next to Paolo on a plane to Boracay, Shelley recounts how she met Max and all the details of the European tour five years ago during which they fell in love.

Max takes Shelley and the other “campers” (an elderly couple on their honeymoon, a gay couple on the brink of engagement, and a young man with a creepy desire to take Shelley’s picture at every landmark) off the beaten path to tell the story of a family over the centuries, beginning at the end in 1871 during the fall of the Paris Commune and ending at the beginning when the eruption of Mount Vesuvius wiped out Herculaneum in A.D. 79.  Through these stories of love and loss, involving old rooster soup in an abbey in Vienna and the madness of a homesick Swiss mercenary, among others, Shelley and Paolo piece together the story of the man they both loved and lost and hope to meet again.

Sotto makes an impossible story seem possible with her thoughtful, beautiful prose.  I could understand Shelley’s need to “jump off the train” whenever a relationship got too serious, but with the help of her fellow travelers and with Max spouting the wisdom of an old soul, she learns how to live in the now and make the choice to live and love.  I loved how Sotto made it feel like I was on the European adventure with Shelley and the others and how she transported me back in time through Max’s stories.  I bought Max and Shelley’s relationship from the very beginning and loved their bantering, but I loved the historical stories the most.  Readers only get a glimpse of the characters from the past, but it’s enough to understand the world they lived in and the sadness and pain they endured.

Before Ever After is a love story at its core, but Sotto doesn’t go overboard with the romance.  It’s also an adventure set during some fascinating periods in history and a discussion of life’s most difficult questions about time, love, devotion, and death.  Sotto’s writing beautifully blends the history and heartache with humor and hope, and her ability to make the past come to life through ordinary people coping with extraordinary events kept me turning the pages and made me sad when it ended.  It’s definitely on the list of contenders for my favorite reads of the year.

Disclosure: I received Before Ever After from Crown Publishers for review.

© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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