Everything Beautiful Began After by Simon Van Booy


Rowdy EBBA final

I’ve seen this novel floating around used bookstores so I picked it up while visiting the Hobart Book Village. I was intrigued by the title – Everything Beautiful Began After. Began after what? Was nothing beautiful before? What does this mean? The title indicates a love story, as does the silhouette of two good-looking people on the cover. It turns out that the title definitely fits the tone and writing style, but doesn’t make sense a whole lot sense in the context of the plot.

Anyways, the story follows three main characters: Rebecca – a French artist; George – a thoughtful, eccentric, and scholarly American; and Henry – a British archeologist. The setting is a beautifully depicted Athens which each of the characters travelled to for different reasons: Rebecca as a project of self-discovery, reconciling her past, and working on her art; George to study languages and to find a sense of belonging; and Henry, to dig. As you have probably figured out, both men are in love with Rebecca (what is with our cultural obsession with love triangles?). Romances aside, the three form a quick and deep friendship and the scenes where  they are all spending time together were my favorite parts of the book. I think the author does a good job of capturing being young, travelling to a new place, discovering things about yourself and the people you are with, nurturing new and exciting friendships (and romances), and enjoying life.

They talked for an hour and then swam into the darker, deeper hollows of the cave, which were teeming with so much life that things brushed against their legs. For a while they lay on their backs on the cool wet sand. Then the tides swept in and washed over them. They swam against the current and out toward the beach – to their jumble of possessions in the glow of early evening. They packed up without saying much.

When they reached the top of the cliff, George and Henry found the scooters and wheeled them quietly toward the road. Just as they were about to mount them, Rebecca stopped.

“I want one more look at the place I was so happy,” she said.

Of course, this happiness can’t last for too long (you can’t just have a novel about happy people doing happy things, can you?) and a horrific event occurs that leaves the characters and the city of Athens devastated. The rest of the novel portrays the remaining characters trying to pick up the pieces and reconcile with the event that changed their lives.

Once you get past the annoyingly vague prologue (more on that in a minute), the story is easy to read and intriguing. The characters are likeable and well-written, although George, by far, is the most interesting. A kind-hearted loner with an unfortunate drinking problem, George spent Saturday nights in college copying whole sections of the Iliad and the Odyssey in ancient Greek. During his freshman year, he stayed up for two days listening to Bach partitas on repeat without headphones. When his roommate moved out, George wrote him the following note:

When Johann Sebastian Bach was nine years old, he copied out an entire library of music. He sneaked out of his bedroom, went downstairs, quietly turned the metal circle that lifted the latch and worked quickly in a blaze of moonlight. The passions we cannot control are the ones that define us.

What a kook!

The major fault of the book is the embellished, emotional, fluffy writing, which some readers will find hard to look past. It’s most apparent early in the book but still pervades the story in an irritating and insistent way:

Words at their finest moment dissolve to sentiment…

A world that was breathing but without form…

Do we love before we love…

He reached for her hand in the darkness and together they fell from this world and into another…

She could feel the winter that defined him…

Around them, at unthinkable speeds, planets tilted their bodies of fire and ice…

What do these even mean?

These little “gems” appear at the end of almost every passage or chapter. A few, well-placed philosophical sentences that make sense and are in context would have worked, but this type of writing detracts from the story, rather than adds to it.



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