A New York Times Book Review Notable Book of 2018, Booklist Editors’ Choice Book (January 2019), and Chicago Public Library Best Book of 2018
What would it really mean to live forever?
Rachel’s current troubles—a middle-aged son mining digital currency in her basement, a scientist granddaughter trying to peek into her genes—are only the latest in a litany spanning dozens of countries, scores of marriages, hundreds of children, and 2,000 years, going back to Roman-occupied Jerusalem. Only one person shares her immortality: an illicit lover who pursues her through the ages. But when her children develop technologies that could change her fate, Rachel must find a way out. From ancient religion to the scientific frontier, Dara Horn pits our efforts to make life last against the deeper challenge of making life worth living.
At the heart of Horn's funny and compassionate novel is a 2,000-year-old Jewish mother seeking reasons for living, some way of dying, and help for her 56-year-old son who lives in her basement. Rachel's story begins in Roman-occupied Jerusalem, where at 16 she marries her father's apprentice although she loves the high priest's son, Elazar, and is pregnant with Elazar's baby. Two years later, when the child falls ill, Rachel makes a bargain with God: she must give up not her life but her death in exchange for the child's survival. The child survives, and Rachel endures successive lifetimes over the next 20 centuries, each lifetime immediately following the previous. Elazar, having made a similar bargain, pursues Rachel through time, occasionally finding her, though never for long. Now in 21st-century New York, Rachel's current form (or "version," as she calls it) is an 84-year-old widow. She thinks she has found a way to finally die, but first she wants to see her current problem child, the one in the basement, get a life. She also wishes to protect her granddaughter, a medical researcher dangerously close to discovering the truth behind Rachel's unusual DNA. Horn (A Guide for the Perplexed) weaves historical detail and down-to-earth humor into this charming Jewish Groundhog Day spanning two millennia.
This was a quite solid, quite engaging book. It took only took me two sittings to read it, but several more to contemplate the themes.
There is a lot of time jumping, which is confusing for many, but in my case, it helped add to the sense of blended time that Rachel experiences in her own life. It was really refreshing to read a story about someone who, despite the trials they face, still believes deeply in their heart that there is a God— regardless of whether or not they have a good relationship with Him.
This is also the first time that I have read a piece of literature that so heavily involved themes of Judaism and the history of the Jews. It was lovely, artful, and a very good experience.