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the widow, the stranger, and eternity

Many thanks to Crown for the review copy.

Many thanks to Crown for the review copy.

The fortune of my life affords me tons of happiness. And I don’t know about you, but sometimes—and only sometimes, mind you—being fully aware of my happiness backfires, and I become acutely aware of all its opposites. I get a huge dose of dread (this is going to end) and panic (how can I live when this ends) and fear, fear, fear. Oh, and obviously, a healthy bit of paranoia. I have a husband who rides a bike to work in all sorts of weather along a road packed with distracted rush-hour drivers. Every day he comes home is a miracle. When I imagine a day that he doesn’t, the after-effects of even this hypothetical situation stay with me for longer than I like to admit. So when I picked up Before Ever After and learned that the main character’s husband was going to die, I tried not to get too attached to him. Samantha Sotto, the author, had other plans for me.

Widowhood is not treating Shelley kindly; she cannot seem to make significant strides toward rejoining the world. But five years after her husband Max died in the terror bombings in Lisbon, a stranger visits her—a stranger who looks so strikingly similar to Max that she cannot send him away. The stranger, an Italian named Paolo, tells Shelley that he’s seen evidence that Max is alive, making his legendary baked eggs and cheese in a tiny restaurant on an island in the Philippines. Even more unbelievable: Paolo believes that Max is his grandfather. Paolo presents photos showing Max from thirty years ago, looking the same as he did the last time Shelley set eyes on him. (Sotto, a Doctor Who fan, evokes the occasional inquisitive mind that finds photos of The Doctor at various points in history, never aging, always observing.) How could Max, who shared with Shelley such a beautiful and all-consuming love, stay away from his despondent wife for so long? Paolo persuades Shelley to fly with him to the Philippines to get the answers for herself. 

During the long flight to the other side of the world, Shelley tells Paolo about The Slight Detour, the guided tour through various destinations in Europe where she first met Max. At each stop along The Slight Detour Max tells a story set in the immediate surroundings and pertaining to a particular family tree. The tour begins in Paris with the death of Isabelle, who gave her life in 1871 to protect a child during the brief and turbulent rule of the Paris Commune. Slowly, Shelley is drawn into the evocative tales of Isabelle’s family, moving backward through time at every successive stop on the tour. And at each stop, Shelley and Max grow closer together. 

One of the great joys of

Before Ever After

is the privilege of watching Shelley break down every powerfully commitmentphobic instinct in exchange for a love that is moving to read about, one that occasionally veers into the treacly but overall remains compelling. Once she breaks those instincts down, though, she gives all of herself, so it’s all the more heartbreaking to think that Paolo might be right, that Max might have voluntarily stayed away. The mystery of the man Paolo found in the Philippines is unraveled slowly, carefully, through millennia, and it is a mark of Sotto’s skill that the many time threads (extending from Isabelle’s sacrifice to the storming of the Bastille in 1789, to the Emmental Valley in Switzerland in 1522, to the Schottenstift Monastery in Austria in 1210, to the Ljubljanica River in Slovenia in 958, to Altinum in what is now northern Italy in 568, and all the way back to Herculaneum at the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79) are never confusing to follow. 

I can’t be objective about

Before Ever After

; I enjoyed the experience of reading such a genuinely dizzying ride through alternating moments of happiness and gut-wrenching loss. I have never read anything quite like it and did not expect to enjoy it as much as I did. The book’s narrative is almost tropically lush but leavened by the zippy dialogue of the characters. Though it has some elements in common with

The Time Traveler’s Wife

, I found it more logically told and less self-consciously literary. I think it’s a perfect book for the last half of summer, a book for reading outdoors with the ones you love not too far away and with a tomato salad in your near future. These transitory things are the most precious, no matter what DeBeers would like you to believe.

Before Ever After

 by Samantha Sotto

Crown Publishing—on sale August 2, 2011

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