Before Ever After by Samantha Sotto is not the ultra-romantic read you’d think it is based on its whimsical title. “A penchant for not dying and an obsession with chickens” is how I remember Sam candidly describing the book’s hero, Max, when I first got to talk to her one afternoon at a casual blogger’s meet about her debut novel.
Written by a young mom during three-hour writing sessions at Starbucks while waiting for her son to be dismissed from school, Before Ever After was inspired by the author’s own experiences growing up in Europe, which she had “fallen in love with” along with its mysteries and rich history.
What it’s about (the gist)
Shelley, a young widow, is still picking up the pieces of her husband Max’s sudden death three years ago when a stranger unexpectedly knocks at her door. The young man, Paolo, claims that Max, Shelly’s husband, was also his grandfather. Paolo believes beyond reason that Max is alive, and convinces Shelly to travel with him to the other side of the world so they can finally solve the mystery of Max’s death–and seeming immortality. While on the airbone trip, Shelley relates to Paolo the details of how she met Max, who was the eccentric tour guide of an off-the-beaten-path European tour group. All throughout her retelling, Shelly wrestles between reality and mystery: Could the man who had stolen her heart have more secrets than she could have ever thought possible?
Beginning moments with “Before Ever After”
I admit: It took me a while to get started on this book the first, the second and the third time I picked it up. (Then again, it’s probably due to the fact that I haven’t read a novel in the last five years!) Perhaps the flowery passages with which the novel often resonates made the initial start-up attempts a bit slow for me, but as I progressed and got past the first chapter, things in Before Ever After began speeding up.
It is, to be frank, more of a historic fiction with a dash of romance more than just a plain love story. I only really found myself connecting with Max and Shelley–the main protagonists–when the historical elements in the story began to get more detailed and intertwined. I didn’t find myself too endeared with Shelly as I was with Max, whom she paints as offbeat, charming, and undeniably sexy (I think Hugh Jackman or Gerard Butler must have popped into my imaginings during in-depth reading sessions involving the mysterious Max! Mm-hm).
I’m in love with Max
Undoubtedly, my favorite character is Max, mostly because I have a weakness for rugged men who have a way with taking slight detours. (Just meet my husband, and you’ll get me.) While the story did take some time to take off (for me, anyway), it began to pick up in pace as soon as Max evolved into the complex, multi-faceted character whom Shelly came to love. To put it bluntly: It’s hard to not fall in love with Max, especially since Sotto paints such a virile, rugged and charmingly mysterious character.
The best portions
For me, the best part of the book was not the encompassing love story of Max and Shelly–which literally went beyond time and space, as you’ll soon see when you read the book–but the historical facts which threaded the romantic fiction. As a history buff myself, I found Sam Sotto’s appreciation for the quirky side of European travel quite charming and intensely engaging. (Back in high school, World Culture and European History were among my favorite subjects!)
Sam herself told me that each chapter of the book was written in chronological order; as she began each new chapter, she’d research a particular part of European history that best tied up with the tour group’s current stop as well as another piece of Max’s mysterious past. She masterfully layered these multiple story lines to culminate in an ending that truly left me sighing; indeed, a story that ends, well, happily ever after.
While not all the detours and pathways of Before Ever After worked for me, it is an excellent and well-written novel for someone with an appetite for both history and a whimsical bit of romance. Think Time Traveler’s Wife with a bit more “oomph.”
After the book, let’s just say I desperately want to take a European vacation right now. And a really good serving of baked eggs and cheese.