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Eternal Life

Review

Eternal Life

Judaism is notoriously vague regarding beliefs in the afterlife and what happens upon death. Some Jews, in various times and places, have believed in a heaven and hell, immortality of the soul, and resurrection of the dead. Others have believed that death is final and permanent. Many have used the concept of Olam Ha-ba, or the World to Come, as a metaphor, while others have held out hope for its existence. Author Dara Horn, who has infused each of her novels with rich Jewish context and subtext, does so again in ETERNAL LIFE as she explores the finality of death, the meaning of life, the power of love, and the worth of family.

In ancient Israel, bristling under Roman occupation, two young lovers make a vow that renders them seemingly immortal for the next 2,000 years. Rachel Azaria is the incredibly smart daughter of a Jerusalem scribe. Her literacy and desire for learning make her almost undesirable as a wife. Still, she has caught the eye of Elazar, a Temple priest. Their secret meetings result in a pregnancy right around the time that Rachel’s parents accept the proposal of a timid scholar named Zakkai. When Yochanan is born, Zakkai believes him to be his son, though Rachel and Elazar know the truth.

"ETERNAL LIFE combines elements of Jewish history and folktale with speculative fiction, which, as unlikely as it seems, results in an absorbing and thought-provoking look at living, dying, and love of all kinds."

Early on, Yochanan displays the same passion and fierce intelligence of his parents, but a serious illness brings him to the brink of death. In order to save their child, Rachel and Elazar take a vow that, unbeknownst to them at the time, will grant them immortality. Eternal life turns out to be a burden and not a gift as the two are doomed to watch every spouse they marry and every child they have die. Over the centuries, Rachel and Elazar live lifetimes together and lifetimes apart, and find no way to escape the conditions of the vow they made to save Yochanan.

In the 21st century, Rachel is surrounded by a loving and frustrating family. Her 52-year-old son, Rocky, has moved back home and seems to be pursuing yet another shady scheme. While his new girlfriend, Meirav, is engaging, Rachel worries that she is not who she seems and that Rocky is in trouble. Rachel is also worried about Rocky’s daughter, Hannah. A genetic researcher, Hannah has discovered that Rachel’s DNA is that of an 18-year-old and wants to study her grandmother scientifically. Rachel hopes Hannah will provide her with the means to finally die.

Horn does a lovely job of rooting Rachel in the past, illustrating her movement through time, and describing her worries and desires in the present. Elazar is a more enigmatic character, but his love for Rachel is undeniable. Rachel is symbolic of Jews in the past 2,000 years as she travels from Jerusalem, through the Middle and Near East, to Europe and then the US in her various lifetimes, witnessing the worst horrors and best accomplishments of her community experience. She is also a singular character, understanding the world and her relationships through the amazing prism of her immortality.

ETERNAL LIFE combines elements of Jewish history and folktale with speculative fiction, which, as unlikely as it seems, results in an absorbing and thought-provoking look at living, dying, and love of all kinds.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 26, 2018

Eternal Life
by Dara Horn

  • Publication Date: January 23, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
  • ISBN-10: 0393608530
  • ISBN-13: 9780393608533