Everything Beautiful Began After by Simon Van Booy
Harper Perennial - Fiction
Rebecca, George and Henry are wounded souls. Each has come to Athens to live and work. Rebecca is an artist from the French countryside who is still pained by her mother's abandonment. Henry is an archeologist from Wales who remains deeply wounded by a death for which he blames himself. George is an American from Kentucky with a knack for languages and a troubled soul. George falls in love with Rebecca but Rebecca falls in love with Henry. Then, Henry and George meet and discover that they're both in love with the same woman after they become fast friends.
"Ah, a love triangle!" you say to yourself. But, then tragedy strikes and suddenly the book takes a wild turn. No longer a tale of two men in love with the same woman, the story becomes a mad tale of grief for one of the characters, a life-changing revelation for the other. When the two survivors take off in different directions, you follow one of the characters on an unsuccessful attempt to run away from grief, only to find that it's in facing up to the past that one creates a future.
We go back to move forward.
But going back is like returning to a house where everyone moved out long ago; for the only life that dwells within memory is the shallow breath of your misplaced desire.
--from p. 218 of Everything Beautiful Began After
My description of Everything Beautiful Began After is deliberately vague because I think half the joy of reading this book is in the surprises -- the plot twists and the alterations in characters as they deal with tragedy in remarkably different ways. Even the point-of-view changes during one section of the book, so that the reader is temporarily placed in the shoes of a character in the throes of grief so deep as to be pathological.
What I love about Everything Beautiful Began After:
I'm particularly fond of the relationship between Henry and George and the scenes that make it clear that neither man is more deserving of love, even if one is rejected by Rebecca -- that fate is a part of life and intertwined in the stories of the three characters. For example, there's a scene in which George and Rebecca are talking and a kitten is walking around behind the tire of a car in the street. As George and Rebecca part, she looks back and sees George bend over to pick up the kitten and move it away from danger. George is an alcoholic and a bit of a disaster but it's in those small moments that you gather hints of his potential for redemption. He's not totally lost from the world; he's still a caring human being. The way Henry sees this in George is also endearing.
"Why is it so dirty back here?" George said again.
"Ever hear of a Nigerian Hercules Baboon spider?" the professor exclaimed.
"Definitely not," George said.
Henry watched him in the mirror--not with coolness or relief, but with a compassion that extended beyond the moment, as though behind the bruised eyes and the quivering mouth he could sense the presence of a small boy the world had forgotten about.
-- p. 128
There are also a lot of quirky, smile-inducing moments: a comical phone call from Henry to his parents in Wales, a scene in which Henry and George fall asleep and wake up realizing they'd drifted off while enjoying each other's company, that they are like long-lost brothers. The description of the car and office owned by the professor at the archeological dig are also gems, as are the scenes in France when Henry rents a car and makes an error setting the GPS then is stuck with the a GPS speaking to him in a language he can't decipher.
Professor Peterson's office was the most dangerous place on campus. Books piled ten feet high leaned dangerously in various directions. On the tallest tower of books, a note had been hung halfway up:
Please walk VERY slowly or I may fall on you without any warning, whatsoever.
There were three oak desks with long banker's lamps that the professor liked to keep lit, even in his absence. On his main desk were hundreds of Post-it notes, each scribbled with some important detail or addendum to his thoughts. There were also hundreds of pins stuck in a giant map that had been written on with a fountain pen. The ashtrays were full of pipe ash and the room had that deep aroma of knowledge: old paper, dust, coffee, and tobacco.
-- p. 129
What I didn't love about Everything Beautiful Began After:
The prologue is dense with metaphor -- so heavy that it's a little exhausting to read. It takes a while for the fog of metaphor to clear. However, once you get past the first 20 pages or so, the book is much more readable and the further you read, the more compelling and gripping the story becomes. When you reach the end, you'll immediately want to reread the prologue and it will make sense.
I've read Everything Beautiful Began After twice, now, and I felt the same way, both times, although I loved the book even more on the second reading. The first time through, I neglected to mark any passages because I plowed through it so fast, dying to know what would be come of the character who was so paralyzed by grief. On the second reading, I was equally mesmerized but I took the time to mark a few favorite lines.
Here are a few more quotes I like:
The beauty of artifacts is in how they reassure us we're not the first to die.
-- p. 13
"This is the old marketplace," Henry said, "where Zeno came up with a few of his lines."
"I see," Rebecca said. She had no idea who Zeno was, but imagined a masked man with a sword in fishing waders. Then Henry stopped walking and recited something to a slumped dog under a bush.
"Every man has perfect freedom, provided he emancipates himself from mundane desires."
The dog sat up and began to pant.
-- p. 49
"I think he looks lonely," Rebecca said.
"But there are always people on the street below his balcony--"
"That doesn't mean anything," Rebecca interrupted. "Loneliness is like being the only person left alive in the universe, except that everyone else is still here."
-- p. 67
To love again, you must not discard what has happened to you, but take from it the strength you'll need to carry on.
-- p. 372
The bottom line: A beautifully written, surprising story of love and loss, grief and hope. Lovely imagery and setting, likable characters and a believable storyline make Everything Beautiful Began After an excellent read. As in all of Simon Van Booy's writing, there is a startling amount of wisdom and humor (the mice and their poisonous plops -- you have to read it to understand!) and always, always hope, even during the darkest moments. Even better on the second reading and well worth owning.
On a personal note:
I've already mentioned that Carrie and I got to hang out together in Boston to hear Simon do a reading and answer questions about Everything Beautiful Began After. We also got together with Simon for coffee before his reading. I hadn't seen Simon since I "interviewed" him in 2007 (it was more like a chat than an interview). Someday, I'm going to lure him to Mississippi for a reading and signing, but that hasn't happened, yet!
Simon is one of the most delightful men I've ever met. Carrie and I had a blast chatting with him and enjoyed his reading. He is an exceptional speaker but talking with him one-on-one will make you a fan for life. He is truly a man I highly admire and am honored to call my friend. If you ever get the chance to go to one of his readings, signings or events, you really must. Tell him Bookfool sent you. :)
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