Book Review: The Other Side of Lost by Jessi Kirby
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Book Review: Eternal Life by Dara Horn

Some books you read and they're just OK. They're good, they keep your interest, they are a pleasant experience. Some books, though. Some books are just so good that to sit down and write about your reaction is fairly difficult. At least, for me it is, because (again, for me) the best books are the ones that manage to connect with me in personal ways. Sometimes it is because of actual things I've experienced in my life. Sometimes it is because of concepts or ideas that have haunted me for as long as I can remember. Sometimes it's the way the book connects to other stories that are also on my list of favorites. So to tell why I loved a book I really, really loved is sometimes complicated. There's too much back story.

Eternal Life is one such book.

Eternal lifeI loved it so much. I read it in about three days and couldn't put it down. To be honest: I could read most books in far less time than I actually finish them in, but this is usually because I can't get everyone in my life to leave me alone for a bit and let me read. Also I've developed the habit of wondering about what's happening on Facebook or Instagram right in the middle of reading a book, so sometimes I set the book down and pick up my phone. But this book? I ignored my family for a bit. I ignored my phone. 

I loved it.

It tells the story of Rachel, a young woman growing up in Jerusalem about 2,000 years ago. She falls in love with a priest's son, but Jewish law would never let them marry, so she marries someone else, even though she is pregnant with the priest's son's baby. When this child becomes mortally ill, she makes a vow, along with the priest's son, in the Jewish temple, that if her baby is spared, she will give up her death. She has no idea what that vow means, and doesn't care, because she wants her son to live.

When the Romans burn down the temple in Jerusalem, she learns what it means, however: she cannot die. She ages slowly, and she can "end" her life by burning, but she always wakes up to the same age she was when she made the vow: 18.

And, she eventually discovers, the vow applies to the person who also made it—the man she now both loves and detests—Elazar, the priest's son.

"Eternal life" seems like it would be a blessing. Not having to die, to suffer with old age. To never leave this world, to live through all of history. But, as Rachel learns, it is death that gives life meaning, in a sense. Unless everyone you love also doesn't die, then you have to continue to lose everyone you love, over and over.

Throughout the 2000 years the book encompasses, Rachel creates many lives for herself. Eventually she must end them and start again. New husbands, new lovers; new babies. She loves them and cares for them, and she notices patterns, how faces or personalities or stubbornnesses repeat. How there is not much new to learn.

The book alternates between her history and her current life, which is set in our current time. She is an old woman, 80-something, although she doesn't look that old, and she has a strong relationship with one of her granddaughters, Hannah. Hannah is, ironically enough, a scientist who is trying to learn how to extend human life, while Rachel is feeling like she is at the end of this current life. Not just this one—she is tired of being alive at all, of living the same patterns, of losing people over and over.

The book moves through several different experiences, but the uniting thread is: what gives life meaning?

By the end of the novel, I was sobbing. Because really: It is just not fair. One life is not enough time. One family is not enough experience. But at the same time, I ached for Rachel to be able to stop losing her relationships with people she loved.

Plus there is this thought, which is one of my favorite things I’ve read about motherhood: “What does a mother think of when she thinks of her first child—especially a child who has grown up, even grown old? For a first child is more than just a child. Other children get to be blessings, gifts, burdens, even, occasionally, people. But a first child is something else: a witness, an opportunity and, above all, a test. … Does she have the imagination to think of him beyond the body that contained him, to think of some essence of the person that exists beyond the baby, the boy, the man, the corpse? Or does she not think of him at all, but of herself, and wonder whether she passed the test?”

To explain what that means to me would take so many words.

But she does it over and over again: puts into words what I have felt about motherhood. “New parents think of each day as a cascade of beginnings: the first time she smiled, the first time she rolled over, her first steps, her first words, her first day of school. But old parents like her saw only endings: the last time she crawled, the last time she spoke in a pure raw sound unsculpted into the words of others, the last time she stood before the world in braids and laughed when she shouldn’t have, not knowing. Each child died before the person did, a small rehearsal for the future.”

And too many other beautifully worded ideas to include.

I want to keep writing about why I loved this book, but probably almost 1,000 words are enough. I have added it to the group of books that have deeply impacted me, and about which I will continue to think for as long as I can think.

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