Sunday, June 10, 2012

REVIEW: Before Ever After by Samantha Sotto

Rating: 3.5/5 Stars
Genres: Romance, Mystery, Historical Fiction, Magical Realism
Audience: Adult

Summary: Shelley is just beginning to heal from her husband's death three years earlier when a man appears on her doorstep with a set of photos—a man who looks almost exactly like her husband Max. His name is Paulo, and he claims that the bearded man in the photos is his grandfather—and also Shelley's husband Max, who would only be in his thirties now. It's impossible, but Shelley has to admit that the similarities between Paulo's "Nonno" and her Max are too profound to be explained by coincidence. Even stranger, Paulo claims that Max is still alive and living on a secluded boat in the Philippines.

First Lines: "Jasmine. It was not Max Gallus's top choice for his last thought, but it would have to do."

Tracy's Thoughts:
This book instantly reminded me of both Audrey Niffeneger's The Time Traveler's Wife and Cecelia Ahern's P.S. I Love You. At moments, it even evoked The Gargoyle, one of my absolute favorite books in recent years. Yet Samantha Sotto's story is unique. Offbeat and romantic, Before Ever After moves easily from moments of bittersweet sadness to zany humor. And Sotto's writing style is fresh and engaging, although I did find her constant use of metaphors distracting at times.

Much of the story is told in flashbacks, and each bit reveals a new aspect of the mystery that is Max. On a plane to the Philippines, Paulo and Shelley share what they know of Max. As she relates her love story with Max—who she first met after impulsively joining a back-roads history tour across Europe where Max was the tour guide —Shelley also reveals the folkloric tales he shared with the tour group at each stop, tales she now realizes to be clues into Max's past. Each vignette features the struggles and loves of ordinary people during extraordinary times—from the 1871 slaughter of the French Communards to the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius—and is interwoven with a stop in Max's tour. The constant movement from present to past to the even more distant past may prove confusing for some readers, but for me it worked.

Also thrown into the mix are Max and Shelley's eccentric mix of traveling companions—whose stories offer intriguing parallels to Max and Shelley's—and an ongoing motif of chickens and eggs. I would love to go on a real 'Slight Detour' tour through Europe, especially if there was a Max to entertain us with tales and prepare legend-worthy breakfasts. (I really want to try his baked eggs and cheese recipe and wish it had been included in the book. I'll have to check for a recipe online...Maybe there's a low fat version?) Anyway, as I'm a total sucker for road trip books and love genre-bending fiction, this book was right up my alley. And although the premise was not as well executed as I had hoped, I still enjoyed it thoroughly. All in all, Before Ever After is a charming read that will particularly appeal to casual history buffs, romantics, and fellow "armchair travelers".

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