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Alchemical romance – ‘The History of Living Forever’

July 2, 2019
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The quest for immortality is one on which people have embarked since we developed the existential understanding of what it means to die. Call it the fountain of youth, the philosopher’s stone, the elixir of life – whatever it is, it is meant to extend our lives beyond the limits nature has set upon them.

But even those who are single-mindedly devoted to that quest may need fellow travelers – and those travels can sometimes lead to something more meaningful than life everlasting.

Jake Wolff’s “The History of Living Forever” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; $27) is the story of one such quest – a quest that threads through the past, present and future and sweeps into its maelstrom two people whose all too brief connection would have widely rippling impacts on their lives and the lives of those around them.

It is a story of devotion, both to the ideas we hold dear and to the dear people who first conveyed those ideas to us. It is about different kinds of love and what it means to sacrifice. It is about bad decisions made for good reasons. It is about believing that science can explain everything – including magic.

Conrad Aybinder is far from your typical 16-year-old. He lives in the small Maine town of Winterville with his aunt – his mom passed away and his dad is in rehab for an alcohol problem he vehemently denies having. He doesn’t have many friends other than his pal RJ and his cousin Emmett. And he has a big secret.

He’s gay. But that’s not the secret. The secret is that Conrad has been in a torrid summer affair with Sammy Tampari – his high school chemistry teacher.

But when Sammy dies the night before school starts, Conrad begins to discover that there was far more going on here than he ever could have imagined. Sammy wasn’t just a chemist, but an alchemist, devoted to pursuing the ever-elusive elixir of life. And now that he has passed away, all of his notes and journals are now in Conrad’s hands … and now Conrad can seek the elixir for his own purposes.

The narrative splits, offering us glimpses of Sammy’s younger days and early alchemical pursuits via his exhaustive journal entries. We also get interludes set some years into the future, where Conrad’s memories of his past pursuits are reignited by turmoil in his current life. And in the midst of it all, the “now,” where Conrad devotes himself to perfecting Sammy’s formula – with a little help from some figures from Sammy’s own past.

Of course, such quests rarely exist in a vacuum. There are others who seek what Sammy sought, and they are willing to do almost anything to achieve the elixir themselves.

“The History of Living Forever” is a tough book to categorize. There’s a literary fiction vibe, but you’ve also got elements of sci-fi/fantasy genre stuff. There’s a love story, and a problematic one at that. You’ve got some family drama and some mystery. All in all, a lot going on – and that’s a good thing.

Carving the narrative into a sort of past/present/future triptych is an inspired idea, one that helps accentuate the relentless flow of time even as our heroes try desperately to divert or otherwise delay it. It’s a strong conceit. The only issue is the relative lack of exploration with regards to the future; it was the one leg of the three that felt a little underdeveloped. Granted, it’s also probably the leg doing the least heavy lifting in terms of the story, but I would have liked to see just a touch more balance.

It’s a small quibble, really, because the past and present make up the difference. Sammy’s globe-trotting journeys and tumultuous relationships juxtapose nicely with the frantic nervousness and familial angst of Conrad in the present. All that plus the EXTREMELY complicated (albeit only briefly explored) dynamic between the two.

There’s a lot going on here, but Wolff keeps the plates spinning. It would be easy to lose track of who’s who – particularly considering the many similarities between Sammy and Conrad – but the narrative shifts and the individual voices are distinct enough to maintain clarity. Considering the complexities, the degree of fluidity Wolff achieves in terms of both plot and prose is impressive.

“The History of Living Forever” is a literary Venn diagram at whose center is a brief and torrid romance that opened wide a door forward even as it closed another behind. Other aspects of the two lives intersect, but all in service to the shared journey at the story’s center. And the people – flawed individuals with their own hopes and fears – simply keep looking for whatever it is they think they seek. They look for answers that may never be forthcoming, because these are questions that are far more about the asking.

Last modified on Tuesday, 02 July 2019 22:43

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