Everything Beautiful Began After
Simon Van Booy
Harper Perennial, 2011
I suppose, when it comes to novels, certain types of characters fall in and out of fashion according to the times. And maybe these are more ironic days, but in my reading lately I’ve been sorry to note the lack of true romantics. I don’t mean romance—there’s plenty of that all over, both as a plot point and a genre. But real romantics in the modern age, not doomed Young Werthers or Lord Byrons, are not all that easy to come by. Especially as you leave your 20s behind and look for that particular blend of hope, obsession, and blind faith being written by and about your contemporaries. Maybe it’s too uncool to merit examination in literature. Mostly that particular kind of emotion gets treated as merely another stage that needs outgrowing, and it’s tempting to give in to older-and-wiser cynicism. Apparently it’s a sad fact but a true one: What looks like a grand romantic gesture, once you’re in your 30s or 40s, just turns out to be another manifestation of poor impulse control.
So how lovely to encounter a grownup romantic in Simon Van Booy. His short stories, especially the Frank O’Connor Short Fiction Award-winning collection Love Begins in Winter, have always been concerned with the place where love and need intersect. But in his first novel, Everything Beautiful Began After, he follows those newborn strains of longing past their initial bloom and on through their most dire manifestations—loss, grief, the way we can be torn down and then somehow recreate ourselves—ending up with a story that manages to reaffirm the romantic impulse while stepping clear of sentimentality.
Van Booy is even kind enough to tip the reader off, in the first few pages, that the story ends happily. This gentle regard, for his audience and his characters as well, is what carries Everything Beautiful Began After along. His players are flawed, a little theatrical and often blinkered by their own sense of drama, but they’re as worthy of love as any of us. And that’s not a bad thought to beat at a novel’s heart.
In the beginning we’re presented with three young expats in Athens. Each of them is in search of direction, all trying to figure out how to move into their adult lives with the wounds of childhood still fresh and urgent. Rebecca, from a small town in France, has abandoned her grandfather’s house and her job as an Air France flight attendant to become a painter. George is a lonely young man of privilege from the U.S. with a drinking habit he cultivated in boarding school, now in love with the ancient Greek language and generally adrift. Henry, an archeologist, is from Wales, and while his family is physically intact he nurtures his own damaging, distancing secrets. They’re your typical unformed 20-somethings, looking for a force that will give shape to their lives, but even the aimless George isn’t so much annoying as sad. Van Booy’s affection for these three and their foibles shines through.
Although they start out in a traditional love triangle, their relationship quickly moves beyond simple geometry. George falls hard for Rebecca after a friendly one-night stand, but she loses her heart to Henry, and he to her—yet at the same time George and Henry manage to forge a deep friendship, one that will prove to be a crucial lifeline for one and then the other. For a brief, sweet moment they make their little triumvirate of tenderness work. And when their world falls to pieces, it’s not what you expect.
In addition to its meditations on romanticism, Everything Beautiful Began After is about grief and the places it takes people—literally, in this case. The characters are sympathetic, but they’re still young, and navel-gazers. They haven’t developed the emotional ballast necessary to survive major loss, and Van Booy is lovingly concerned with how they manage it. The message here—that romanticism can be a source of great strength and hope—is a sweet one. That the spurned George is able to form a bond with Henry is testament both to his loneliness and his capacity for love, even though
George had written Rebecca’s name in ancient Greek and taped it on his refrigerator. He had even tried to compose a few lines of poetry for her, which he kept in his pillowcase with an emergency packet of cigarettes and the birthday cards from his father, which went back as far as his seventeenth birthday.
That last phrase is typical of the book’s terrifically precise writing. These are not just birthday cards going back to his 17th birthday, but the cards—for the 16 years before that, there were none. Van Booy’s literary style can take some getting used to, but it grows on you, and slowing down to appreciate the poetry in his sentences is one of the novel’s great rewards. His portrayals of places, especially, are elegiac and beautiful, and hold some of the secrets to his characters as well.
Outside imagination, the Parthenon is nothing more than stacked rubble. And such is the secret to life in a city ravaged by the enthusiasm for its childhood. Athens lives in the shadow of what it cannot remember, of what it could never be again…. From a distance, the white plaster and stone of the buildings glow, and those approaching from the sea on hulking boats witness only a rising plain of glistening white—details guarded by the canopy of sharp sunlight that sits over the city until evening, when the city slows—and then a quick blush that deepens into purple veils the sea and becomes night.
Or Henry’s description, to himself, of his desk:
Your desk has a black marble top. It was the first thing you moved when you entered the apartment. You set it beside a window. The desk is so polished that it reflects everything. Birds swim through the table as you work.
For much of the story we follow him in his travels, and this specificity, the vividness with which Van Booy paints the corporeal world, is in contrast to how little Henry can find to hold on to. But it’s his streak of wild romanticism—the same one that allows him to be so completely shattered—that gives him the werewithal to rebuild. Or as Henry describes it, in a harrowing and wonderful scene where he saves a small girl from choking,
… it’s the faith that embodies God but incorporates logic.
And there are hands we live between that open and close.
Once aligned there is nothing to fear.
There is plenty of good misanthropic work out there to be read, enough to float the boats of all the skeptics around. But when the need arises for some sweetness, for the affirmation that one could just as easily nurture the little flame of romanticism as disavow it—which is, frankly, so much easier these days—then this is one way to encourage it. Van Booy is a lovely writer, and Everything Beautiful Began After is a kind book.