Everything Beautiful Began After
(Harper Perennial, 2011)
Simon Van Booy’s debut novel, Everything Beautiful Began After, follows three characters: Rebecca, a gifted artist; George, a drunken intellectual; and Henry, an accomplished archaeologist, as they find love, friendship, and forgiveness. The book is divided into two parts, as hinted at in the title: a before and after, of sorts, accompanied by a sudden shift in narrative voice. Even after the shift, the author consistently writes in a way that’s wistfully melancholic, exhibiting a memory deeply nuanced by a Romantic exaggeration of the senses.
The setting is certainly part of the reason Van Booy’s characters feel more; the backdrop to Everything Beautiful Began After is Athens. His characters exemplify an expatriate wanderlust of the slightly higher class. Feverishly visual, the novel is reminiscent of classic cinema such as Casablanca. Everything seems more exotic, therefore more curious and more meaningful. Van Booy points out, “A dozen small girls were pleading with their mothers. The vendor was drying plums in a towel. A group of cats foraged in an open trash can.” Reading Van Booy’s work is like walking through a gorgeous dream, where the mundane is often beautiful. Other times, the characters’ dialogue teeters between the profound and schlocky. But as Henry smartly suggests, “Language is like drinking from one’s own reflection in still water. We only take from it what we are at the time.” Perhaps Van Booy’s work can be most enjoyed if readers give in to deep sentimentality, something contemporary adult fiction frequently lacks.
Everything Beautiful Began After concerns itself with universal, humanistic topics: the conquest of love, the navigation through grief, and moments of self-actualization. Each character has a period of perceived escape from personal demons, yet Van Booy gives readers satisfaction: even while sipping red wine in a cafe, fate catches up to these unsuspecting comrades. They are defined by their own tragedies.
Van Booy crafts language in a way that’s both pretty and makes his characters’ despair surprisingly captivating, particularly because so many pages are given to this emotion. Despite the enormity of heartbreak, the novel remains positive in its philosophical outlook, and the book’s division into two parts hints at a second life. There’s a tidy feeling at the end of the novel that every previous moment was essential to bring us to the final moment; the world works in a series of fascinating, meaningful chain reactions. In the contemplation of these accumulations—both happy and sad—characters witness grace.
Fans of Van Booy’s short story collections will find much to like in his first novel, although the captivating moments delivered in his shorter works begin to feel overwrought over the course of a longer one. Van Booy’s touch renders everything beautiful. Unfortunately, after so many pages, the line between everyday existence and critical moments becomes blurred, and the most important events can seem too melodramatic to be poignant.