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Before Ever After by Samantha Sotto

Before Ever After by Samantha Sotto is a journey to—spoiler alert (hehe)—“happily ever after.” It takes readers from a train station in Spain to a non-castle in England to a tropical island in the Philippines to “where Shelley is.” Shelley is the wife of Max, who died three years ago as they were talking on the phone when a bomb exploded in front of him in Madrid’s Metro. For those who prefer Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy—as I do—over Danielle Steel and Nora Roberts, this disaster is practically all the “action” that takes place in Sotto’s first novel. But despite the absence of conspiracy theories or terrorist plots, the book is a page-turner, mainly due to a question that compels Shelley to abandon her mourning and travel halfway across the world with Paolo, a man who claims to be the thirtysomething grandson of her late, thirtysomething husband: Who is the man in a two-month-old photo (from a blog!)—wearing the pendant she gave Max—who looks remarkably like her husband?

The answer is gradually revealed over the course of a long flight from London to Manila. In between Shelley’s conversations with Paolo on the plane are a series of flashbacks to the unusual guided tour of Europe where she met Max five years earlier, and where past events—both obscure and well-known—are introduced in the course of the journey, as well as even more flashbacks that take readers to the storming of the Bastille in 1789, as well as the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79.

If this were a movie (and I certainly hope it becomes one), it would probably be compared with The Time Traveler’s Wife and Eat, Pray, Love—both based on bestselling books, incidentally—because of its preoccupation with love lasting through time, as well as the culinary and travel motifs (plus Catholic guilt!) that are an integral part of the novel’s structure and appeal. I enjoy watching romantic films, but tend to regret seeing them on the way out of the theater. (Why? Because I always end up asking, “When will it happen to me?”) This was not something, however, that I felt as I finished reading Before Ever After. Aside from the fact that Sotto sustains interest in the mystery of Max’s identity throughout all the journeys back in time, there is so much in her book that can be used as a basis for spiritual reflection on the meaning of life that I couldn’t help but do a little reflecting myself. At the same time, there are also many laugh-out-loud moments that make it difficult to classify this novel, notwithstanding its title, as merely a romantic one. Here’s a passage that is somewhere between spiritual and funny (actually, closer to deliciously bawdy) that illustrates why I liked the book so much:

Buttons. They were wonderful things, Shelley thought. In the twenty-plus years that she had been pushing them in and out of holes, it was only now that she realized what they were actually for. They heightened anticipation in a way no zipper could hope to match.
Shelley was about to have sex with Max for the very first time, except the phone rang (“Hello? Maximus Coitus Interruptus speaking”) and they learned that someone in their tour group had just suffered a heart attack. What happens afterward not only raises even more questions about Max, but also challenges readers to consider the difference between sadness and mourning, and the inevitability of death… and life.

There are unresolved questions, of course, but as with the age-old question regarding the chicken and the egg (i.e., Which came first?), it doesn’t really matter. In case it’s not clear yet, I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to be entertained and doesn't mind being provoked to think about the really important things =)

Disclosure: I am not in the habit of reviewing books, but I was asked if I’d be interested in receiving an advance reading copy, and I said “yes.” If I didn’t like it, I reasoned, I’d just beg off writing about it in my blog. Except I did like it and finished it—in less than twenty-four hours—during a breakfast that involved consuming three scrambled eggs. (To those who have read the book, this was purely an accident and had no connection to the book’s ending.) The author is married to a former classmate of mine, but it must be said that her husband and I were neither close friends nor mortal enemies, and that I have never actually met his wife. I thought it would be a good idea to review the work of a Filipina, whose first novel is being published by Random House in New York. Other Filipinos—a few anyway—have had their books published by American publishers throughout the twentieth century, but this is the first one I’ve encountered that is not pushing a political agenda (but there is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it message about the environment) and treats its subject the way life should be lived: with generous doses of wit and humor.

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