How can you not be curious about a book title like this? There's something even in the title that is tantalizing and a little haunting. The title, the cover, the many wonderful things I heard about his stories, which I've not yet read (but intend to!) all conspired together to make sure I requested Everything Beautiful Began After from Harper Perennial.
For those who are lost, there will always be cities that feel like home. Places where lonely people can live in exile of their own lives - far from anything that was ever imagined for them.
Everything Beautiful Began After is the story of the unlikely friendship of three people who meet in Athens, three people running from their pasts and trying to find themselves and create new lives in an old city. Rebecca, a shy girl and talented artist from the French countryside loses herself as she caters to her passengers on Air France flights. She comes to Athens to find inspiration for her painting and to find her true self that she had locked tightly away. George, from the American south, grew up in boarding schools where what love could be found was always at a distance. Even in Athens, he buries his sorrows and loneliness in liquor and his passion for ancient languages. Henry, an archaeologist, searches for the bodies of the long dead for clues to lost civilizations, but really is searching for absolution from an unspeakable tragedy from his past.
Together, the three find the love and joy that have been missing from their lives. Their time together in Athens shines bright as the one time they can remember that they were all truly happy. However, when tragedy strikes, both the strength and the fragility of their bonds are revealed, the secrets of three people who hardly had the chance to know each other at all bubble to the surface, and send the characters on unexpected journeys that will change the courses of their lives forever.
The real Rebecca lay beneath, smuggled onboard each flight inside her uniform, waiting for the moment to reveal herself.
But such a moment never happened, and her true self, by virtue of neglect, turned from the world and slipped away without anyone noticing.
If a philospher and a talented novelist got married and had a baby, it would be Everything Beautiful Began After. At first the prose seems like it could be too much; too flowery, too overwrought, but then you realize it's kind of delicious and you want to roll around in it. At first, the dialogue seems the slightest bit unrealistic. You find yourself thinking, "Are there people that really talk this way?" But then you think that maybe even if people don't talk this way, they still could. Perhaps in a surreal Athenian summer ordinary people could give voice to the extraordinary thoughts rolling around in their heads that they might otherwise leave just as thoughts. Then you realize you are absolutely relating to these big things that they're saying that you don't imagine people say. Everything about Everything Beautiful Began After feels slightly exaggerated to great effect. There's a purity of emotion in it that will take readers by surprise, perhaps confuse them, but ultimately leave them satisfied.
"Loneliness is like being the only person left alive in the universe, except that everyone else is still here."
Van Booy's novel is a triumph. Athens comes alive in his hands, a place with softened edges that seems almost unreal and is the perfect context for Van Booy's tale. Van Booy doesn't settle for telling his story in just one way but easily shuffles between third and second person narrations, and even first person by way of Henry's typewritten letters from around the globe. Rarely have I been so impressed with a second person narration as I have in this book. It brings to life the immediacy of grief and the surreal distance that accompanies it. The book deals heavily in the pain of grief but never abandons moments of humor in favor of total melancholy. On the whole, Everything Beautiful Began After is a beautiful, richly textured work that chronicles the lives of three unforgettable characters brought together and torn apart by a summer in a city that will always feel like home.
Humans may come and go - but the thread of hope is like a rope we pull ourselves up with.