For Rebecca, the abandonment by her mother when she was a small child is something that she’s never been able to reconcile. Something of a lost soul, she finds herself in Athens after a short stint as a flight attendant. It is here that she meets George, a linguist who loves alcohol, and later meets Henry, a man who has come to Athens to dig. These three lonely people become mixed up in each other’s lives and find that they are inextricably linked.
If there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that Simon Van Booy’s debut novel is going to polarize readers. Full of rich prose (seriously, really good stuff can be found here) and aimless, lost characters, the novel harkens back to an age when Greece was a destination for young, idealistic wanderers (who come from a background of privilege, to be sure). There’s something vaguely Hemingway-esque about Van Booy’s characters, and it’s all very intentional. The polarizing of readers will happen when they think about the novel, though. Some will consider it nostalgia that’s completely overdone while others will hail this book as a contemporary masterpiece.
I fall somewhere in the middle. The language in the book certainly is beautiful. Van Booy’s characters are rich and definitely layered, full of strange little idiosyncrasies that make them all the more real. The plot moves fairly quickly, and it will definitely suck readers in. Van Booy is often in danger of romanticizing grief, but it never fully spills over. There is definite substance here, and it’s worth investigating.
Yet I could never shake the feeling that Van Booy was trying too hard. It feels as though all of the nostalgia that Van Booy evokes with his rendering of a long-past Athens (set in present day?) is too intentional. The comparisons to Hemingway and Fitzgerald are likely to continue to roll in, but when you feel like that’s what the author was going for when he wrote the story, it takes something out of it.
That doesn’t mean that the book won’t find an audience. It’s going to resonate with readers who take pleasure in stories full of rich prose and vivid characters. Van Booy is a talented writer, and his career is one to track.
Everything Beautiful Began After by Simon Van Booy. HarperCollins: 2011. Electronic galley accepted for review via NetGalley.