Though this debut has all the components of a summer treat—romantic European locales, tragedy across the centuries, a supernatural leading man—it fizzles in the telling.
After two years of marriage, young Shelley is widowed when a subway bombing kills Max. Three years later, a young man comes to her London door with unbelievable news: He is Max’s grandson Paolo. He has convincing evidence in a series of photos of himself as a child with Max, but as she, Max and Paolo are all about the same age, the truth that Max is very old, in fact, immortal, is inconceivable. Nevertheless, Paolo has found Max running a restaurant on a remote Pacific island, so Shelly and Paolo take the next plane to the Philippines to confront him. On the long ride, Shelly narrates her romance with Max and unravels the truth about his long, long past. On a whim five years ago, Shelly took a quirky tour with Max’s company, which offered an unusual perspective on Europe’s great capitals. At each out-of-the-way site, Max spun an incredible yarn for his merry little group of travelers: the tale of poor Isabelle during the 19th-century Communard Revolt, the fate of two adventurers at the French Revolution, a ghost story involving a mad mercenary in 16th-century Switzerland, a quiet conversation on aging between an old abbot and a young monk in a 13th-century Austrian monastery and so on, until Max’s tour reaches its conclusion at Herculaneum, one of the ancient cities destroyed by Vesuvius in 79 CE, an event that made Max immortal. On the tour Shelly and Max fell in love—it is only in the retelling to Paolo that Shelly realizes these stories were about Max. Surprisingly, following Max through history is rather dull. He is often not the lead player; so much of the novel is composed of vignettes of characters who simply come and go, without the weight of Max (himself a rather shadowy figure) to ground the story.
Sotto’s characters are flattened by the crush of history—a flaw that overshadows the cleverness of her conceit.