Of Chickens, Journeys, and Forever
(A Book Review of Before Ever After by Samantha Sotto)
With its share of joys and aches, Shelley Sullivan’s love story, on its surface, is something we have known and heard before — that is until the day of her husband’s untimely demise in a terror bombing in Lisbon, halting her blissful though short marriage to Max Gallus. As three years of grief and difficulty of moving on have made her painfully realize, sometimes love stories doesn’t always turn out for the best, that fairy tales doesn’t always lead to a happy ending.
Or so she thought…
All it takes is one doorbell; and as Shelley opens the door she also opens a window of possibility too outrageous to comprehend. Standing in front of her is a young man whose face bears a striking resemblance to Max’s — looking exactly as he did the last time Shelley had seen him — and introduces himself as Paolo, an Italian editor for an American publisher of coffee table books. He bears evidences, childhood photographs claiming Shelley’s husband is the grandfather he is searching for along with more shocking news: Max is alive and well, living in an island off the Philippines and it seems still whipping up his legendary baked eggs and cheese in a quaint restaurant.
Frantic for answers, their heads buzzing with questions, Shelley takes a leap of faith, agrees to accompany Paolo and flies halfway across the globe to search out Max and uncover the mystery of his identity.
Aboard the airplane to Boracay in the Philippines, Shelley tells of joining “The Slight Detour”, a European tour off the beaten track where she came to know and fell in love with Max, the tour’s proprietor and guide; while Paolo relate tall tales told to him by his grandfather Nono during his childhood about heroic exploits in diverse times and places throughout Europe. As Shelley and Paolo’s stories merge, bordered by present-day and flash back narrative, it carves out an unusual path through its European setting and vivifies the continent into new, surprising light.
Before Ever After, the debut novel of Filipino author Samantha Sotto, is a mishmash of everything in between: primarily it’s a romance novel with an added dash of mystery, culture and history, jazzed up by humor and witticism with a sprinkling of fantasy. If that isn’t enough the book also works as a travelogue of sorts offering intriguing bits of little known trivia about Europe’s much and lesser traveled regions. Yet the icing in the cake for me is that it also engages the reader’s gastronomy as its main character Max Gallus has a idiosyncratic fascination with chicken and eggs and whose métier of baked and cheese is featured throughout the book it more than whets the appetite and makes it eater euphoric with every mouthful, it likewise makes the reader’s mouth water and the taste buds crave for its creamy goodness. Just where could I go and what would I give just to get a taste of the real thing?!
Sotto’s prose is magical, by turns making the commonplace look remarkable as her handling of plot and characterization proves true; even plain things, motifs she uses significantly in her story, assumes new meaning in the eyes of the reader. But more than this I think she writes lusciously, engaging the senses with the “warm, buttery, and bursting with full-fat promise” of her narration.
Before Ever After is a charming story peopled by quirky characters — from demure Shelley, mysterious Paolo, the affable Slight Detour tour group you would love to have for company in a backpack trip, up to the towering and dreamy Max, the central character that drives the story. Weaving together stories that at first seems random, spanning years, even centuries apart, it pretty much presents and moves the plot in a clever fashion drawing to an astonishing close that will soak up the reader to fit bits and odds into place. Yes, it is in every way a romance novel in the grand tradition of the genre; nevertheless, it perfectly underscores its theme of a love in its infinity goes beyond the test of time and the clutches of death with a mystical twist. By its end it will totally have the reader mesmerized and misty-eyed on to a bright morning, waking up to the realization that joy lies in the simple things in life, like a warm hug and the rich aroma of baked eggs and cheese hot off the oven, and that sometimes journeys may take you somewhere or nowhere but certainly the first and last step leads to forever.
Book #33 for 2011
Published by Crown Publishers
(Hardcover, 2011 First Edition)
Started: August 15, 2011
Finished: August 19, 2011