Sunday, October 02, 2011

Everything Beautiful Began After by Simon Van Booy

Everything Beautiful Began After by Simon Van Booy
Copyright 2011
Harper Perennial - Fiction
402 pages

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.

Other reviews:

Marg's review is wonderful
Wendy's review is equally awesome

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. :)

©2011 Nancy Horner. All rights reserved. If you are reading this post at a site other than Bookfoolery and Babble or its RSS feed, you are reading a stolen feed. Email for written permission to reproduce text or photos.


  1. I really enjoyed this book too. Like you, some of it frustrated me with its sort of self-importance, but I liked both of the men. Rebecca occasionally aggravated me, but I liked George and Henry and thought that their evolution was pretty good. Not a fun read, but a good read.

  2. Wonderful review - and I agree, having met and chatted with Simon during the BEA/Harper party in 2010, that he is a delightful, very engaging person! Thanks for the link up to my review as well :)

  3. Okay, so I at least need to give it past page 20. I stalled out at page 14, and was wondering what I was missing because almost everyone else seems to love this book. I promise to give it another chance at some point - I'm just not sure when that will be.

  4. The fact that you've read this twice already speaks volumes to me.

  5. I really enjoyed this book. I am looking forward to reading more from him!

  6. Cupcake,

    I have trouble seeing the overuse of metaphor as self-important or pretentious (the word I've seen most repeatedly used by those who disliked the heavy use of metaphor) because of the fact that I've known Simon for 4 years and know he is about as unpretentious as a guy can be. But, yeah . . . a bit dense at the beginning, though once the characters have been fully introduced, it becomes quite a joy to read.

    Rebecca is definitely my least favorite of the three. I think I found it a little difficult seeing what the two men found so entrancing about her, but Henry and George are both magnetic, fascinating characters. There are bits of Simon in both of them. I just love that.


    Thank you! I missed your review when you wrote it and actually found it by doing a google search. It is excellent and well worth sharing. I remember seeing the BEA post in which you mentioned meeting Simon. I'm always excited to find that other bloggers are meeting him and discovering his work. He's such a terrific fellow that you can't help but wish him the best.


    Maybe even a bit farther than page 20. Once the characters have been fully introduced and you get to the meat of the story, the use of metaphor drops off. I think you'll like it once you get past those bits; our taste tends to be pretty similar. I actually set the book aside, when I first opened it up. The prologue did stop me, briefly. But I talked to Simon when he finished the book and, knowing how much he put into it, there was no way I was not going to finish that book. It was kind of a relief when the prose became less flowery and a thrill to find that I did, in fact, love the story. I've been conquered by friends' books, in the past, and it's a miserable feeling. I absolutely cannot wait to see what he comes up with, next.


    I really do love Simon's writing. His two volumes of short stories have become my comfort reads. I'll sometimes just pick one up off the shelf and reread a favorite story or flip through and randomly read a passage. I like his writing that much. So, it's not too surprising that I've already reread his first novel! :)


    I'm looking forward to you reading more, too! Maybe we can buddy read one of the other books, when you get your mitts on it. I'm always up for another reading of Simon's short stories!

  7. I read Love Begins in Winter and loved it, and have been hearing so much about this book! I want so much to read it and see what I make of it, but knowing Van Booy's skill with the pen, I am sure that I will really love it, like so many others do. Great review on this one!

  8. I have got to check Simon out. Everything I've read about his work is positive!

  9. Zibilee,

    If you enjoyed Love Begins in Winter, I'm sure you'll like Everything Beautiful Began After. And, you definitely should get a copy of The Secret Lives of People in Love, as well. Thank you! :)


    Yes, you definitely need to check out Simon's work. It's exciting to see that he's getting the recognition he deserves. He's a very gifted writer.

  10. It must be good if you read it twice! I bought this one a few weeks ago and can't wait to read it. Thanks for the heads-up about the beginning being a bit hard to read.

  11. Anna,

    I always end up rereading Simon's books! His short stories . . . couldn't even count the number of times I've reread them, now. If you're patient with the beginning of Everything Beautiful Began After, you'll be rewarded in the end. Hope you love it as much as I do!

  12. Great review!! I really want to read this.

  13. Thanks, Michelle! I hope you will read it. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

  14. Yes, I had never heard of this author until you and Carrie mentioned meeting him. Now I'm seeing his name all over the place. With such high praise I'm not sure I can ignore him much longer!

  15. Trish,

    Oh, yes, you really must stop ignoring Simon. I've been talking about him for 4 years! Where ya been, lady?

  16. Trish,

    Well, just go buy a Van Booy book and we won't make you go sit in the corner, this time. ;)

  17. I have just finished Everything Beautiful and found your blog while googling Mr, Van Booy's other titles. I read it over three days and loved ever minute of it, had to keep a notebook to and to copy out some of his amazing prose, on my next read I will underline. I agree with what has been said previously, slog your way through the prologue if you gave, his language is beautiful even if a bit ponderous. I loved the long lost brothers, Henry and Simon, they will stay with me a very long time. Now, who are we going to persuade to do the movie? It would be stunning......

  18. libbirk,

    That's probably what I should have done -- recorded quotes in a notebook! Good idea underlining, too. I actually have an extra copy that I can happily mark up. I'm one of those people who can't bear even a turned corner, but with an extra copy . . . well, that's different, isn't it?

    I love the way you put that, "the long lost brothers". They definitely stick with you. Hmm, I don't know who to beg, but I think you're right that EBBA in movie form would be cinematically beautiful. It has several amazing settings.


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