There are so many books to recommend in this world that it often seems a shame to waste column inches warning readers against the bad ones. There is, however, a particularly insidious and well-marketed branch of contemporary literature that banks on the fact that people frequently do judge books by their covers, and specializes in maximizing the advantages gained by glossy cover art and catchy jacket notes. It is against these deceptive little novels that the general public should be warned.
Irini Spanidou's Before does a great job disguising from the casual bookstore browser how terrible it, in fact, is. The cover is appealing—a grainy gray image of a woman sprawled against a wall, cigarette in hand. The premise is workable: a woman living in New York City in the 1970s who is both defined and constrained by her exceptional beauty.
Before's appeal, however, is as superficial as the implausible characters that populate each awkwardly constructed page. Beatrice is a trust fund baby trapped in a loveless marriage, who works a publishing job in order to feel useful, who is so beautiful that everyone who knows her wants to fuck her, whose intelligence is frequently alluded to but never demonstrated. (The reader is treated to several references to Beatrice's never-finished college thesis, which was to connect the work of Søren Kierkegaard and Simone Weil; the excruciating banality of this apparently escapes Spanidou entirely.) There are some challenges that come with writing a character whose biggest problem is that she's "too pretty," and Spanidou is not writer enough to lend any universality or relatability to this poor little rich girl's existential crisis. In one scene, Beatrice ties a pearl necklace around her waist and gets drunk while listening to Janis Joplin. If there is a more trite and clichéd way to depict a woman having a breakdown, I can't imagine it.
Before is so embarrassingly indulgent that it proved a genuine challenge to get through each page. Much like the man whose good looks distract you for a time from how vapid he is, Before's appeal is fleeting and insubstantial, vanishing within the novel's first few pages and leaving the hapless reader ass over tits in a churning morass of artless prose, stick figure characters, and strained pseudo-intellectual insight.