Not all fairy tales have a happy ending — this is what Shelley Gallus discovers in “Before Ever After,” the debut novel of Filipino author Samantha Sotto.
After her idyllic marriage is cut short by the untimely death of her husband in a terrorist bombing, Shelley has a difficult time moving on, overcome by grief and memories of their life together. One fateful day, her doorbell rings, and she finds the story isn’t over just yet – standing on her doorstep is a man who looks exactly like her husband.
The stranger introduces himself as Paolo, claims her husband Max is his grandfather, and that Max is halfway across the world, alive and apparently well, and Paolo has pictures to prove it. Bewildered, and yet desperate for the truth, Shelley agrees to accompany Paolo to find the husband she believed dead. Along the way they exchange memories of the man they thought they knew, and Max’s identity is gradually revealed.
Shelley and Paolo’s stories trace an unusual route through Europe.
The two yarns converge, taking the reader on a journey through France, Switzerland, Austria, Slovenia, and Italy, and then part ways again, centuries apart. The two storylines are framed by the present-day narrative, where Shelley and Paolo are en route to Boracay, Philippines, where Max has been sighted.
Shelley’s story tells of joining “The Slight Detour,” a European tour she signed up for five years ago, with Max Gallus at the helm. Max takes Shelley and a ragtag bunch tourists to a graveyard in Paris, a barge on the Seine, a barn in Emmental Valley, a Benedictine monastery in Austria, the Old Town district of Ljubljana, an island in the Adriatic Sea, and the backroads of Ercolano, Italy.
Meanwhile, Paolo’s stories are those told by his grandfather when he was a child, heroic adventures depicting various points and places in history, such as the Paris Commune in 1871, the storming of Bastille in 1789, the Swiss mercenary trade in the 1500s and the Battle of Bicocca in 1522, Schottenstift Abbey in the early middle ages, the bank of Ljubljanica in AD 958, the ancient town of Altinum in AD 568, and the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79.
The novel is part romance, part mystery, and part historical narrative with some elements of fantasy, but it does well as a travelogue for destinations off the beaten track, true to the promise of The Slight Detour Company. The detour also applies historically, as Paolo’s narrative traverses European time periods not normally depicted in historical fiction.
And surprise, surprise – it’s a foodie novel, too. Max has a quirky passion for eggs (and live chickens, begging the old chicken or the egg dilemma, which is perfectly relevant to the story) and his specialty, baked eggs and cheese – “warm, buttery, and bursting with full-fat promise” – makes several appearances throughout the book, rendering the eaters rapturous with each bite, and the readers salivating in turn. As Shelley attempts to recreate Max’s dish several times, trying to figure out the elusive secret ingredient, culinary-inclined readers will surely be inspired to take a stab at the recipe as well.
One great love
“Before Ever After” is charming in its subtlety, greeting the reader like an old friend, and quietly engaging with its warmth, sincerity, and a hearty helping of humor. Somehow, Sotto manages to make the mundane infinitely extraordinary, from the characters to the plot, even common objects such as purple weeds, chickens, eggs.
The delightfully eccentric Max is the driving force of both “The Slight Detour” and the novel, fully fleshed out and seemingly larger than life. Shelley’s character is the perfect counterpoint to Max’s – practical where he is impulsive and staid where he is quirky. Max and Shelley are in good company – Paolo is maddeningly familiar and strange at the same time, while the members of the tour group are the company you’d love to have along on a trip: honeymooners Rose and Jonathan – that little old lady brimming with wisdom and her devoted Santa Claus of a husband; Dex, perfectly companionable and yet with a smile doesn’t quite reach his eyes; and the fabulously gay couple Brad and Simon.
The intertwined narratives move the plot along quite nicely.
Shelley’s continuing story provides a balance that keeps Paolo’s fantastic episodes in check, mirroring her relationship with Max. Meanwhile, events in the present day build up to a breathtaking finish, keeping the reader guessing right to the last page.
“Before Ever After” also breathes new life into the tired concept of immortality; certainly nothing new in fiction.
But eschewing grand pronouncements of fate and destiny and some monumental obligation to fulfill for all eternity, Sotto goes directly to the heart of the matter: that one great love that transcends the time that is measured in seconds, minutes, and hours.
“Where we are now is where a lifetime’s worth of steps have taken us,” Max tells Shelley in Paris, and the novel echoes his sentiments. It takes quite a detour from ever after, proving that it is the journey that matters in the end.
UPDATE: For an excerpt of Before Ever After, mosey over to Samantha Sotto’s blog.
Before Ever After is exclusively available in trade paperback at National Book Store
Before Ever After, uncorrected proof and trade paperback, 4.5/5 stars
Book #89 for 2011