Book: Eternal Life by Dara Horn
I picked up this book because I thought it was pretty. Like any superficial reading decision I gambled with my limited and therefore extremely precious time. But the gamble paid off because Eternal Life gave me a refreshing experience, one I haven’t had since I first read Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. This book had me reconsidering my approach to life and made me question, not for the first time, some of the more unsettling aspects of how American culture approaches death.
The main character is Rachel, a 2,000 year old woman who is ready to leave this world for the next. Rachel’s problem is that she can never die – the result of a desperate vow made in her youth to save her firstborn son. Aside from the fact that she can’t die, Rachel is a woman of humble origins.
As the years accumulate into decades and centuries, Rachel lives different versions of the same life. She marries, has children, and fulfills all the duties expected of a Jewish woman. Imagine changing thousands of diapers, nursing dozens upon dozens of children over millennia, and endless kitchen duty. I can practically hear all the mothers and grandmothers of the world chuckling because they already know how this feels!
But the true horror of eternal life is in outliving her spouses and descendants. She experiences the pain of loss over and over again, and it never gets easier.
In the current, 21st century version of her life she is loathe to leave her family even though her time with them is almost up. Having done this dozens of times over the centuries does not erase the depth of her love for any of her progeny. Leaving her loved ones always feels just as painful.
“Not dying doesn’t make it better. It only makes it longer.”
As Rachel struggles to leave her current family, her old beau (who is also immortal) re-enters her life. His love for her is truly eternal: he has had the hots for her since before the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and he is not going anywhere. It’s like your first high school boyfriend (or girlfriend) will never go away, and worse, is the only person on the planet who can fully understand you.
“I’m not a monster, Rachel. I’m just a man who understands you better than anyone else in the world. Perhaps even including God.”
What Stood Out
1) How often I laughed.
The author balanced the heavier topics of death, grief, and immortality with her wonderful sense of humor. It added a necessary touch of lightness that prevented the book from being too depressing.
The humor also made sense for rounding out the main characters. When you live for a couple of millennia, a sense of humor would be necessary to keep from going insane. Hell, it’s completely necessary after just two or three decades of life.
.@poncedeleon Silver lining…silver lining…OK, here’s one. Once a Grand Inquisitor tried to flay me to death. Epic fail!
2) The insights into Jewish history.
Throughout the novel we also read flashbacks to her life in earlier centuries. Horn does some beautiful historical fiction in these sections. Since Rachel was originally born to a Jewish family and first lived under the Roman occupation of Jerusalem, we get to read some intriguing pieces of Jewish history. I particularly enjoyed the insights into Temple customs, the evolution of Jewish practices over time, and Torah scholarship.
“My father doesn’t like the ending to that story,” she said. Her voice shook, but she could not stop herself. “He thinks having Abraham attempt to kill the child was a mistake, maybe a mistake made by an earlier scribe. He wanted Abraham to change his mind.”
The philosophical aspects made me fall in love with this book. I love when a story can deepen my awareness or enhance my worldview and I found all of this in Eternal Life. Overall, this novel gave me the sense that life is what gives meaning to life, not death.
Takeaway #1 ~ The ordinary is sacred.
How often do we read or hear little mantras that use death as some kind of negative motivation to push ourselves beyond the ordinary? Yet as Rachel discovered, sacredness lives in the day-to-day, ordinariness of everything. In fact, there is nothing else.
Many days and years and people had passed before she understood that the details themselves were the still and sacred things, that there was nothing else, that the curtain of daily life itself was holy, that behind it was only a void.
This stands at odds with a culture that tells us we need to do spectacular things, stand out from the crowd, and change the world immediately.
Takeaway #2 ~ The only way to move forward is to let go.
Most of the time we are not granted the privilege of seeing exactly how we impact the world, and this applies to a long-lived character like Rachel. Ultimately, we can only live in the day-to-day, do our best, and trust enough to let go when it is our time.
While eternal life may seem appealing to a culture that seeks to extend and immortalize, Rachel’s dozens of marriages and hundreds of children reveal the sobering truth: the only way world can move forward is with the passing of each generation. As Dara Horn said in her Q&A with the publisher, “Always leave the party while you’re still having fun.”
What do you think?
Does the prospect of immortality seem exciting, or does it freak you out? Did you read this book and love it, hate it, or DNF it? Are you interested in reading it? Let me know your thoughts in the comments 🙂