Einstein on the Beach: How a Quote Informed a Scene from BEFORE YOU GO

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.

It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion

is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe,

is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”Albert Einstein.

It’s a simple quote, really, and I came across it when reading his biography, brilliantly written by Walter Isaacson.

And I kept returning it to my mind when I was writing the closing chapter to Before You Go. The scene takes place on the beach, Jones Beach specifically, a place I know well. It’s a feeling, too, not just a place. Because when you stand at the edge of the world like that, the ocean crashing before you, it’s impossible not to feel like a tiny part of something enormous and beautiful, the power and wonder and vastness of nature. The mystery of God or whatever you want to call it.

And I wanted the book’s endnote to convey some sliver of that. When I look at my notes on the final galleys, I see that I fussed with that passage to the last. Deleted a comma and the word “and,” cut a compound sentence into two short ones. I toyed with gilding the lily on the line, “There was another world across it,” but I suspect I got talked out of that by my editor, Liz. Or, hey, sometimes I have the sense to talk myself out of those things. Understatement, you know — it’s what all the kids are clamoring for.

Understatement and subtlety, that’s where the money is!

This brief passage doesn’t live up to the great Einstein quote. I know that. But the echo is there for me and, I hope, reaches readers in some serpentine way. Just the sense of that word, mystery. The ocean gives that to me, and to many other people I know. A sense of peace, and calm, and belonging to some greater thing.

So two teenagers walk on the beach, a broken-up couple heading to the shore:

Becka led the way through the dark, down the long West End beach toward the ocean. Jude smelled the briny air, tasted seaweed on his tongue before the ocean’s hum had even reached his ears. His vision limited to shades of gray and black, Jude sensed something in the distance that couldn’t be seen, something vast and mysterious called the Atlantic. There was another world across from it. He reached out for Becka’s hand. They walked barefoot and together to land’s end.

And again, a few pages later, with Jude alone, I reached for it again . . .

He didn’t know what would happen with Becka. Maybe that’s why he needed to be alone on the beach, to watch the sunrise, to be okay with himself, despite everything. Sometimes life seemed impossibly hard, full of car wrecks and souls that shined like stars in yellow dresses. So much heartbreak and undertow. Jude bent down, picked up a smooth white stone, measured its heft in his hand. And he reached back to cast that rock as far as he could.

Just to see the splash.

3 comments

  1. Liz S. & Sam S. says:

    That last line is fantastic. Such a good call on your part, JP.

  2. Donna says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading the ARC of Before You Go. My favorite sentence in the book was the one you quoted: “Maybe that’s why he needed to be alone on the beach, to watch the sunrise, to be okay with himself, despite everything.” It has personal, profound meaning for me and I think your readers will appreciate Jude’s journey and the way he comes to terms with his life. Thanks for writing this story. I can’t wait to share it with my students!

  3. aspiringdiva says:

    Speaking of beaches, Einstein is pictured on the Pacific Coast – Santa Barbara to be exact. The photo is part of an extensive collection of the Gledhill Library of the Santa Barbara Historical Museum.

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