Review: The History of Living Forever

The culture-crossing, time-spanning quest for the elixir of life has always told us more about human nature than about chemistry. Eternal youth and immortality remain as desirable as they are elusive--and the tales of our relentless pursuit of them, whether they're grounded in mythology or scientific inquiry, often turn out to be great conduits for stories about longing, grief and love.

Jake Wolff joins this canon with his debut novel, The History of Living Forever. It contains many stories in one, but at its heart is 16-year-old Conrad Aybinder, a sensitive high school student who has received a terrible shock: his chemistry teacher, Sammy, who was also his lover, has just ended his life. And, confusingly, he seems to have done it as part of a lifelong quest to concoct a mixture that would guarantee immortality.

Conrad inherits Sammy's notebooks, which document his 20 years of research and self-experimentation. They're full of clues that may lead to the definitive recipe for the elixir of life--as well as to the man Sammy truly was.

Having known a great deal of grief in his short life, Conrad is determined to complete Sammy's work and save himself from further loss. But as Conrad races to obtain the necessary ingredients, both the mixture and the man become increasingly obscured. And it turns out that there are others who want Sammy's recipe--and their intentions may be less pure than Conrad's.

True to its title, The History of Living Forever sprawls across time and space. Conrad's quest is paired with "case histories" of the many before him who have sought immortality for themselves or for the ones they love, tenderly demonstrating that Conrad isn't alone in his grief and desperation (though he may feel like it). At the same time, Wolff also tells Sammy's story, which turns out to be even more complicated and heartbreaking than his notebooks suggest.

With uncommon perceptiveness and a vivid imagination, Wolff has crafted a story that is both highly unusual and, in its way, universal. The History of Living Forever is not only another entry on the long list of stories about the quest for eternal life, but part of another grand storytelling tradition: the coming-of-age tale. --Hannah Calkins, writer and editor

Shelf Talker: A grieving teenage boy sets out on a quest for the elixir of life--and learns some unexpected lessons about what poisons us and what sustains us.

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