If you were immortal, how would you support yourself? is there a way, other than moving every few years, to conceal from your acquaintances that you do not age? (warning, some spoilers below)
Before Ever After begins in the middle of the plot, with the death of one of the main characters, then jumps forward to the denouement1: the widow of the bombing victim gets the shock of her life when a man only a few years younger than she believed her husband to be shows up on her doorstep claiming to be her husband’s grandson. It’s no joke and no paradox, in an “I’m my own granpaw” way: Paolo, the man on Shelley’s doorstep, really is the grandson of Max, the man to whom Shelley was married for two years and who she believed dead in a bomb explosion on a Madrid public transit train.
The bulk of the book alternates between the framing story–Paolo and Shelley’s flight to the remote South Pacific atoll where Nonno/Max Gallus was last reported–and the explanatory internal story of how Max and Shelley met and fell in love. Shelley was living the semi-impoverished life of a recent graduate in London when she decided to go on a tour on a whim before choosing whether to stay poor but independent in London or move back to the comfortable strings-attached home of her parents. She books with “The Slight Detour” company, which turns out to be one man, Max, and his VW microbus, complete with disco ball and mattress in the back; the company is legitimate, however, and she sets off with Max, a pair of elderly newlyweds who want to make the most of their few years remaining together, a gay couple, and a middleaged man traveling as a way to honor the memory of his wife who developed early onset Alzheimers.
The tour is not one of cruises down the Danube, climbing up the Eiffel Tower and other obvious tourist destinations. Instead, Max takes the group on a tour of lesser known though beautiful sights: a cemetery in Paris, the last resting place of a girl Isabelle who died in the tumult connected to the Commune of 1871; a diving expedition in a Latvian river with a bed sticky enough to adhere to artifacts which came to rest there; the barn of a Swiss Mercenary who fell victim to nostalgia and went mad from longing for the irretrievable past; the last remnants of a monastery with a particularly wise abbot; and lastly the mosaic floor of a Roman Villa. Threads running through the trip, and the book as a whole are that delicious though cholesterol laden food, hens’ eggs, made delicious by Max’s skill with cooking.
By the middle of the trip, Max has fallen in love with Shelley. By the end of the trip, she’s overcome her hesitations and agrees to marry him. They have two years of perfect wedded bliss and exquisite omelettes before Max gets blown up in the Madrid subway. Shelley has almost but not quite reconciled herself to Max’s absence, though the vast wealth he’s left her as his lawfully wedded wife eases the physical anguish somewhat. It is not until Paolo shows up on her doorstep that she realizes there is something strange about this man whom she believed was nothing more than a marvelous husband, and the stories he told were so believable…because they were true.
I’ll go ahead and give away the Big Reveal, as most clever readers will have figured it out by about midway through the book at the latest: Max is immortal. He’s not a vampire, just a normal human guy who loved life enough that when he died, at Mount Vesuvius’ eruption way back in A.D. 79, he came back to life again, immortal and forever the age at which he died. As with most immortals (whatever the reason) he must move on from role to role, relationship to relationship, before the acquaintances around him figure out what he is.
I’ll confess I almost gave up on this book at the 50 page cutoff; at that point it struck me as being simply an uninspired romance between two implausible poorly developed characters–one of whom was too young to know what she really wanted out of life but not old enough to have outgrown those childhood dreams of a lacy white wedding and the other a pastiche of suave Eurotrash with a glib tongue and a talent for baked eggs with cheese good enough to make susceptible women come at the first bite. Come on, who says “luv” (as a noun of address) every sentence? and who’d fall in love with someone like this? Well, Shelley did; frankly, I might consider someone who made me amazing breakfasts every morning and dash the cholesterol. It’s not a brilliant first book–Sotto writes more interestingly and convincingly about the European landscape and history which the tour encompasses than the relationship between Max and Shelley. On the other hand, the landscapes and the egg dishes are enjoyable!
1and no, the spouse of the protagonist getting blown up by a backpack bomb isn’t the real denouement. It’s just the hook.