I did some research, as I usually do, on Van Booy when I finished the book and learned that he has dealt with tremendous loss in his life prior to publishing this story, which made what the characters went through feel more weighty to me. This interview also provided some sweet insight into Van Booy as a person and I was able to understand his style of writing a bit more.
The book is set in Athens and the three main characters all went there in an attempt to escape not necessarily their lives, but the pain they have long carried with them. Rebecca has left her job as a flight attendant to pursue painting. George is there to study ancient languages. Henry is there as a archaeologist. The friendship and love that follows is beautiful and unexpected. Then the story is wrought with tragedy, in the city of ancient Greek tragedy. It is clear that this is a story not just about these characters, but about the coping and living with brokenness that people have done for all of time. The second half follows how the characters try to pick up the pieces:
"A man on an upside-down bucket is selling small tubes of glue from a folding table. On the table are things glued together. He doesn't know where the museum is but asks if anything you have is broken. 'Everything,' you say in Greek. He puts a tube of glue in your hands. You hold out a few coins, but he pushes them away," (293).
Slowly, the characters, like the city they find themselves in, begin to rebuild. None of them is able to forget and each of them is forever changed and they attempt to find the balance of remembering the beauty of what was and continuing to look for beauty in a world that is capable of crumbling. This always resonates with me and I've written about it quite a bit. Every conversation I have with friends in the midst of heartbreak, or even just in talking about what the definition of good living, is grounded in paying attention to the small, simple pieces of beauty in the world, past or present, which is why I loved the metaphor of what Henry became: "He is a curator. He reconstructs scenes from the past to illustrate their beauty and significance." He didn't try to completely forget the moments of beauty from his past, but rather recognize their worth. "He is enchanted by the beauty of small things: hot coffee, wind through an open window, the tapping of rain, a passing bicycle, the desolation of snow on a winter's day," (401). That is how I want to live.
The end of the book comes back to the girl from the prologue and I found myself thinking about how in her story, everything beautiful began after people born before her experienced great pain. That switch in perspective is beautiful in and of itself.