Tuesday, October 4, 2011
Posted by Simcha 6:26 PM, under | 7 comments
I don't think I've ever felt as anxious to to reach the end of a book as I did while reading Before Ever After. Almost from the very beginning I could tell that my enjoyment of the story as a whole would end up depending on how it was concluded.
After three years of mourning for her deceased husband Shelley is finally ready to accept her loss and live again, and that's when she receives the shock of her life. A young man, looking remarkably like her husband, shows up at her door claiming the impossible. Not only is Max still alive, but Shelley's youthful looking husband is this man's grandfather, which he manages to prove with a series of family photographs. Paolo had thought his grandfather had died many years ago only to discover that he was somehow still among the living, and the proprietor of a small cafe in the Philippines.
Not knowing what to believe, Shelley agrees to travel with Paolo to this cafe in order to confront the man that he claims is her dead husband. During the long flight Shelley relates to Paolo how she came to know Max while participating in one of his unconventional tour groups across Europe. She also recounts for him the various stories that Max had shared with the group about the tumultuous history of a particular family. While telling these stories Shelley comes to understand Max's own connection with the family and the possibility that the impossible may be true.
Two chapters into the book and I knew how I wanted it to end. We are introduced to Shelley right before she finds out about her husband's death in a bombing and then we see her again, three years later, still buckling under the pain of that grief. After Paolo appears at Shelley's door, claiming that her husband was still alive, I proceeded to rush through the book in the hope of an ending that would provide a satisfying explanation for Max's absence and a romantic reunion, to make up for the pain and loss that Shelley had suffered. As I read through the stories that Shelly recounts to Paolo, I came to know Max, and fall-in love with his rakish but lovable personality, much as Shelley did five years ago.
After Shelley concludes each of the stories that she remembers from the tour, from that of a 17 year old girl executed in the 1871 siege of Paris, to that of a family torn apart by a volcano eruption in 79 A.D, her and Paolo sift through the details in order to understand how Max was involved in each event. And as the flight nearers its end Shelley's fear of what she will find at the end begins to escalate. If it is indeed her husband running that cafe in the Philippines, how would she face the pain of his abandonment? And if it's not actually Max, then Shelley would be mourning the loss of her husband all over again.
Much as Shelley's anxiety increased as her plane began its landing so did my worry increase about the upcoming ending. I had come to care for Max and had been caught up in the stories of his complex and painful past, but if the book did not provide the answers that I had been anticipating than I was going to be sorely disappointed.
Leaving aside the issue of the ending for now, I'll tell you a bit about my reaction to other aspects of the book. The writing was somewhat inconsistent in that sometimes it was wonderfully evocitive and poetic and other times it was strange and confusing. The dialogue wasn't very good, and the conversations between Shelley and Paolo in particular seemed to me unnatural and overly theatrical.
Before Ever After is a story, or several stories, within a story. Shelley is describing her time in Max's tour and telling over the stories that he had told their group as they traveled across Europe, while stopping off at various locations whose history has been forgotten by everyone but him. I enjoyed both parts of the story, the tour and the historical anecdotes. Max's stories were fascinating, providing a glimpse of historical events from the perspective of a single individual in a personal manner. And each of these stories can be traced back to the teenage girl who died in 1871, whose grave the group visited at the very beginning of the tour. Pretty quickly we discover that not only are these historical characters all related to each other but they are all connected to Max as well.
Max is a remarkable character that I really came to care for and feel connected with. We get to know him in variety of guises and to see behind the confident and playful exterior to the uncertainty and vulnerability hiding behind it. As someone who keeps losing everyone that he cares about to the ravages of time, Max has begun questioning what it means to get old and what is left for him to live for. Though it's only in hindsight that Shelley realizes all of this about Max. On the other hand, Shelley was far less interesting or complex and I had trouble seeing what it was about her that Max found so compelling. We are frequently told that due to her father's death when she was a child, and her mother's reaction to being widowed, Shelley has always run from any possibility of romantic entanglements. This is brought up much too often to explain Shelley's feelings about Max, but it didn't really make me feel anything for her or understand her any better.
So, the ending. Well, I really can't tell you much about it without spoiling it but I will say that I did not find the satisfying conclusion that I was hoping for and, as I expected, this kind of spoiled the whole book for me. The explanations that I had been looking forward to receiving are never offered. Some explanations are given but not the most obvious ones. Shelley's reaction also disappointed me and the actual ending of the story is not even clear, but left open-ended so it could be viewed as either happy or tragic. I did not like this. I felt like after all the emotional buildup there should have been a clear ending. But others seem to appreciate this open-ended conclusion, so I suppose it's different for each reader. Though I can tell you that if I had jumped to the end of the book just to see how it ended, as I was sorely tempted to do several times, it wouldn't have meant very much to me, without my having gone through the whole journey first. But after giving it much thought I decided, just so I can have some peace of mind, that the book ends happily and therefore my last few hours of frenzied reading have not been for naught.