American expat Shelley Gallus had put her life on hold after her husband, Max, was killed in a Madrid train bombing three years earlier. When a man who is his spitting image rings her doorbell in London, claiming to be Max’s grandson, Paolo, Shelley refuses to believe this time-bending impossibility. That is, until the similarities between Max and Paolo’s beloved and seemingly ageless "Nonno" become too profound to ignore.
She and Paolo board a plane for the Philippines, where he believes Max has resurfaced. Shelley’s reminiscences about how she and Max first met form the heart of the novel, and although its structure jumps around a lot, the story is easy to follow. Max had been her guide on a laid-back package tour through the back roads of Europe that Shelley joined on impulse.
As the tour group’s VW van rumbles along from the steps of Montmartre to Switzerland’s Emmental Valley, and from the red-roofed skyline of Slovenia's capital to the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius, Max recounts folkloric vignettes from history, each one set further back in time. Each is a perfect little slice of the past featuring ordinary people, their difficult times, and how they fought to save their loved ones.
Back on the plane with Paolo, Shelley realizes that perhaps Max’s stories were more than that. Perhaps they were his way of telling the truth about himself.
Sotto’s deceptively slim debut is as rich and satisfying as one of Max's famous baked egg and cheese breakfasts, minus the calories and cholesterol. Its tone moves from zany to thoughtful to painfully sad and back again, all the while evoking the lengths people travel for love.
Before Ever After was published by Crown in August at $23.00/$25.95 in Canada (hardcover, 294pp). Stop on over to the author's website for back story, her blog, a virtual tour of the places in the book, and pics of the cutest little VW van. This review was first published in August's Historical Novels Review.