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Samantha Sotto – Before Ever After

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When “forever” doesn’t mean “forever” for reasons that no one’s considered.

Publisher: Broadway (Random House)
Pages: 294
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-307-71988-1
First Published: 2011
Date Reviewed: 18th June 2012
Rating: 4.5/5

Shelley’s husband died from a bomb in a backpack on the subway in Madrid, a few years after they had met. Two years afterwards Shelley is still grieving, and when she answers the door to a man who looks like her husband and says he is Max’s grandson, she wonders if the bruise to her head she gained when she fainted on the doorstep is the reason why she is seeing the impossible. But Paulo isn’t Max. Indeed Paulo has issues of his own, he wants to know who his grandfather is because he knows the man is still alive. And for Paulo to find out who Max is, he must ask Shelley, even if this will be the first she has heard of it too.

Before Ever After is the debut novel of an author who shows much promise. It successfully combines a range of ideas and genres to create something not merely magical but also extremely romantic, up-to-date, and informing. At once a travel log, a historical fantasy, a comedy, and a tragedy, the book presents itself as something incredible.

The story is told through a compilation of flashbacks and present-time reflections. As the basic idea is for the characters to discover who Max is, the flashbacks are used in order to show how Max had hinted at things all along, and the present-time is used for Paulo and Shelley to work out what was going in. Indeed the flashbacks are stories within a story within a story, the book is three layers thick, but the structure and format means that you will never be at a loss for what time period you are currently reading about. The setting of the present day is mostly a plane, which gives the characters plenty of time to chew things over, and while you may find yourself wanting it to be over already so that you can meet Max, the fast pace of the novel means that the satisfaction of reading it and taking in all of the information is much more exciting. Indeed you never know if you actually will get to meet Max in the present time, and that in itself spurs you on because he’s such a great character that you really hope you will. All of the suggestions and especially the very first page of the book, tell you that he is very likely paranormal in some way, but Sotto does a good job of letting you wait to find out if it is true or not. And you will be wondering until the end.

“Now listen campers,” Max said. “Take note of this place in case you get lost during our field trip and need to find your way back home. If you don’t think you can remember where we started from, you can purchase a baguette and leave a trail of bread crumbs. Oh, and before we head off, there are three things you must remember. First, don’t talk to strangers. Second, you need to be aware that your travel insurance does not cover acts of stupidity or alien abduction. Please do your best to avoid them. And third, hold on to your mates.”

[…]

Shelley raised a brow. “Mating?”
“Mating,” Max said, “from the word mate, a word derived from the Old Dutch word maet or companion, which shares the same root as mete, which means ‘to measure’.”
“I see,” Shelley said. “So what you are in fact offering me is a measure of companionship, correct?”
“Indeed.” Max stuck out the crook of his arm. “The length of my arm to be exact. All in accordance with the guidelines of the Poultry Club, I assure you. You won’t get lost, I have a place to rest my arm, and the chickens are secure in my fidelity.”

Max is one of those characters who comes along very rarely. This reviewer would liken him to Mr Rochester of Jane Eyre and Max de Winter of Rebecca for his difference – whilst he is not like them he shares with them this certain uniqueness in quality. Max is surely a great romantic hero, yet on the face of it, for his dialogue, he is anything but. Shelley may be a strong heroine in herself, but Max is the winner here.

The inclusion of Shelley allows Sotto to show her reader a widely known issue, that of being afraid of relationships because of prior hurt. Shelley is almost paranoid about being a relationship, keeping a list on her at all times that tells her when to jump ship from dating a man – to ensure she doesn’t end up like her widowed mother, who in turn showed her how much depression could come with loss. Max too is worried about losing people, and this is apparent throughout the book; it is the way the couple figure out their relationship in a way that works for them that is so compelling.

Another factor in the book is the number of everyday issues and taboos Sotto fills her story with, and the way that she includes them like any other element. This is done through the secondary characters. Max and Shelley met when Shelley decided to sign up to join the tour group Max was taking to the continent, and it is the people on the tour with them that make the novel so valuable. The tour group consists of a young American called Dex – Shelley’s cultural male counterpart, Rose and Jonathan – an elderly couple in the prime of their sexual lives, and camera-wielding Brad and his partner Simon. Rose is very open about her sex life, and Brad and Simon are just a gay couple – there is no reasoning behind anything, Sotto has included subjects to be as normal as anything else, and this lack of pointed political correctness in a book that otherwise oozes it is particularly refreshing. With the historical content and present-day happens race is also included, and Max’s nature as a possibly paranormal person is drenched in issues of morality.

She sank her teeth into melted cheese and summer, unleashing a silk stream of eggs and cream in her mouth. A buttery earthiness lingered on her tongue. She gulped orange juice to keep from moaning from the world’s first egg orgasm.
Rose gave Shelley a knowing look. “I came as well, dear. Twice.”
Jonathan sputtered, turning a shade brighter than the raspberry preserves on his baguette. “Ah… um… yes, yes, wonderful eggs, Max. Très magnifique.”
Shelley did not recover quite as elegantly, and was still choking on the juice that had spurted out of her nose and onto Max’s shirt. Max came to her rescue with a couple of solid pats to her back, a napkin, and a grin.

Considering Rose’s frankness about her sex life, it should not surprise you that at times the book is hilarious. Whilst it is not graphic, Sotto lets the jokes run wild and there are numerous references to loud noises and length as much as there is travelling around the continent.

And travel makes up a huge section of this book, providing the basis for the character’s meeting, the reason for the history, and what Sotto wanted to talk about as a keen traveller herself. There is a great deal of information on the places visited, which are diverse in location and culture. What is interesting is that Sotto is relentless in her goal of introducing her characters, and thus her readers, to lesser-known gems in Europe. Through these lesser-known places, Sotto is able to create the world she wishes for Max to explain to his tourists, and it gives her free reign in the historical fiction department. Quick research will show you what is factual and what is not, and this is another part of what makes the book so appealing, that you are reading a blend of travel log and history and learning so much all at once. The historical rewrites are something in themselves, with Sotto often referencing well-known figures in order to provide background context, and twisting both facts and possibilities, such as the idea that Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon was a place of debauchery, in order to produce the result she wants. Stretching from the 1970s all the way back to Ancient Rome, across different religions and cultures, with a variety of fantasy characters and just plain interesting ones, there is bound to be something to interest you in the history chapters.

“I told you it was nothing,” Adrien said. “Although the duchess did appear to be the tiniest bit cross with me. But then again, I could be mistaken.”
“Mistaken? How so?”
“Well, I was rather busy dodging the various heavy brass objects she was throwing my way to really pay attention to what she was saying.”

There are a couple of less positive factors to the book and these concern the way Sotto uses description. There is an excess use of similes where what is really happening is sacrificed for descriptive and poetic metaphors. The issue with the similes is that they create melodrama in places where melodrama is not needed and can sometimes cause confusion as to what is happening. And there are short bursts of info-dumping and a few clunky dialogues. However these negative parts are rather like the excessive use of humour in a Terry Pratchett Discworld novel – it is easy to accept because the good vastly outweighs it and it is understandable that Sotto is still coming into her own as a writer, still working out her style and voice. The plot and characters are what’s important, and they are enough to keep you reading when the written word falls down a bit.

Before Ever After is a very apt name, giving you everything you need to know about the book without really giving you anything at all. If this is what happened before, then what happens after? Is there an after? Was there ever really a “before”?

The scent of strawberries, or rather what strawberries might smell like if they were made from melted plastic and disinfectant, filled the white-tiled room.

It is impossible to do justice to this story. Let that statement be the conclusion.

I received this book for review from Crown Publishing Group, Random House.

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