Horn, Dara. “Eternal Life”, W.W. Norton, 2018.
What Does It Mean to Live Forever?
Rachel is a unique woman in that she is unable to die. As of late, however, she has been having a series of problems—she is a widow, her business is failing, her middle-aged son can’t find a job. Yet these are minor compared to what she has had to deal with her two-thousand years on earth. It was back then that she made a deal, a spiritual bargain, to save her first son’s life during the Roman occupation of Jerusalem. There is only one other person who understand what Rachel is dealing with and that is a man she was once in love with who has been following her over the centuries with the feeling that the two of them belong together for all time.
Now with the early years of the twenty-first century, her children and grandchildren are dealing with immortality in their own ways and Rachel knows that she needs to find a way out. This is a book that is both a moving and a very funny read as it looks at the bonds between generations, the power of faith, the purpose of death, and the reasons for being alive.
Rachel was a contemporary of Hillel the Elder around the year 80 B.C.E. For that time, she was a well educated girl who worked with her father, a scribe. She was his messenger and went to from the Temple priests in Jerusalem. She was witty and a clever interpreter of Torah so much so that Elazar, son of the high priest took notice of her. Their subsequent love affair, that even continues after Rachel marries a scholar named Zakkai and has a son, who illness Rachel understands as a punishment for her relationship outside of marriage. To save his grandson’s life, the high priest, Elazar’s father conducts a ritual that condemns Elazar and Rachel to eternal life. The only way that can end their lived is through being offered as sacrifices.
Elazar and Rachel go through regeneration after regeneration, reborn again as 16-year-olds in a new part of the world. They try to avoid each other; they don’t reconnect, but are drawn together by passion and a need to speak about their shared curse.
In the 21st century, Rachel is incarnated as mother of two – a middle-aged good-for-nothing son and a brilliant biochemist daughter. Through a quirk of fate. Rachel’s daughter is researching longevity and believes she may have unlocked the secret to eternal life. Rachel sees the opposite possibility; if her daughter can prevent death, perhaps she can find the biological reason for her inability to die and help her finally to do so.
We get an intricate exploration of Rachel’s reasons for being alive. With each life, each marriage, and each child, she experiences a bit of hope for the future. She also experiences the mundane and boring aspects of life. as well as the mundane and repetitive aspects of life. She has lived over and over again through heartbreak with the repeated losses she goes through and the ennui of there being nothing new under the sun. She constantly repeats the cycle of attraction, marriage, reproduction and the death of loved ones, and she continues to create new life to influence the world through her heirs.
Rachel becomes a kind of “everywoman” who is able to deal with wherever she lives and during periods set apart by many years. During her early years she is totally and completely Jewish ands passionate about it. She loves God and also reflects on that. She is sure God exists since she is immortal and only God could have arranged something like that.
Horn’s universal protagonist can navigate ancient Judea, contemporary New York, and many eras and places in between. She’s progressive for her time, and, at least for the first few centuries, deeply and passionately Jewish. She reflects on how her love of God, whom she knows to exist as evidenced by her own immortality. She believed once in the commandment: “To love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” However, she often felt that this love was “sadomasochistic: seductive, cruel, and irresistible.”
Rachel is both worldly and world-weary and we see the humor in this while at the same realizing the emotional strain it puts on Rachel. The narrative moves from the present to past loves and losses and the reader experiences what Rachel experiences. We see her looking for solace in a human connection and this is what keeps her moving forward. All of us have experienced the miraculous and the mundane and in this we find reasons to continue on. Horn reminds us that it is through our actions and our progeny that we have the potential to repair our own lives and the world.
As a philosopher by profession I was immediately pulled into Dara Horn’s wonderful new book and so thankful that she has provided a topic that so badly needs to be spoken about.
By musing on sacredness, history, and purpose, Horn is able to give us a romantic, funny , witty and suspensful look at how we live. We, along with Rachel, meditate on the meaning of life while at the same time explore the future and memory. Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!