Summary and book reviews of The History of Living Forever by Jake Wolff

The History of Living Forever

A Novel

by Jake Wolff

The History of Living Forever by Jake Wolff X
The History of Living Forever by Jake Wolff
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Jun 2019, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2020, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Adrienne Pisch
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About this Book

Book Summary

A chemistry student falls for his teacher and uncovers a centuries-old quest for the Elixir of Life.

Conrad Aybinder is a boy with a secret; sixteen and ready for anything. A chemistry genius, he has spent the summer on an independent-study project with his favorite teacher, Sammy Tampari. Sammy is also Conrad's first love. But the first day of senior year, the students are informed that Mr. Tampari is dead. Rumors suggest an overdose. How can it be? Drugs are for unhappy people, Conrad is sure, not for people who have fallen in love.

Soon, though, it is clear that Sammy had a life hidden even from Conrad, evidenced by the journals he left for Conrad to discover after his death. The journals detail twenty years of research aimed at creating recipes for something called the Elixir of Life. Sammy has left Conrad a mystery and a scientific puzzle, but also, it seems, the chance to cure his father's terminal illness. Conrad must race against time and other interested parties to uncover the missing piece of the recipe. What will he do to discover the formula?

Spanning centuries of scientific and alchemical inquiry, ranging from New York to Romania to Easter Island, featuring drug kingpins, Big Pharma flunkies, centenarians, and a group of ambitious coin collectors, Jake Wolff's The History of Living Forever is equal parts thrilling adventure and meditation on mortality, thoughtful investigation of mental illness, and a reminder to be on the lookout for magic in science and life.

1
A Contradiction of Sandpipers


"Conrad!" he yelled. "It's time to go."

I'd come to Littlefield, Maine, at the beginning of middle school, after my mother died and my dad drove his car into a tanning salon. He'd blown a 0.12 and made the local news, and since then I'd lived with my aunt. When I first moved in, I had expected Emmett to resent me for a million reasons—here I was, occupying his house, sapping his parents' attention, barging into his grade despite being two years younger. But right away he'd seen the benefits. He asked me for feedback on his drawings and stories, and I helped him pass his tougher classes, which conveniently were my strongest: chemistry, bio—basically anything in a lab.

As I opened the door, he was already walking away. "Your dad is here," he said. "I'll be in the car."

I tried to hurry, but I also needed to look my best. Sammy and I had somehow gone the whole summer without discussing this day—the day we'd return to school, student and ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

The novel attempts to tell a story of impressive scale, but it is the closest, most human moments that are emotionally captivating: a father and his son, a boy struggling with loss, a pair of friends failing to relate to one another...continued

Full Review (648 words).

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(Reviewed by Adrienne Pisch).

Media Reviews

New York Times
The novel’s superabundance finally works against it. A central issue is Wolff’s insistence on overburdening his characters with trauma...There is something inhuman about characters who always operate at the maximum pitch of experience. At the same time, the novel’s quieter, more nuanced elements, such as Conrad’s grief at Sammy’s passing, go largely unexplored. Yet while Wolff hasn’t struck quite the right balance in this first novel, it proves he’s already an author with a refreshing restlessness, who will try anything to entertain his readers.

New York Journal of Books
One of those big, ambitious first novels...A celebration of the possibility of love, of the gift of loving...At times, the novel reminds one of the work of Thomas Pynchon in its paranoid sense of a dark, secret world underneath what we think of as normal reality, but Wolff has his own, unique vision and a gripping poetic style. His characterizations sometimes call to mind Michael Chabon’s best work...There’s a great deal of poetry in Wolff’s writing, and his style both carries the reader along and makes her stop and enjoy particularly lovely bits of verbal scenery.

Cosmopolitan
Most stories about searching for the elusive elixir of life star either villains or vampires (or both). But this tale focuses on a gay man, and he's not trying to keep his dashing good looks— he's trying to prevent more people he loves from dying.

Shelf Awareness
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.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
[An] intoxicating debut ... The epic sweep and sly humor in the midst of enormous anguish will remind readers of Michael Chabon's work as they relish this heady exploration of grief, alchemy, and love.

Booklist (starred review)
Wolff riffs on immortality in a fresh, engrossing tale with a zany cast of characters ... Wolff's wild, hilarious, and moving adventure is rooted in reason and the tough truths of life: how easy it is to hurt the ones we love; that forgetting is easier than forgiving; and that life (with an elixir or not) is never long enough.

Library Journal
A noteworthy first novel.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
This beautifully written, carefully plotted, intelligent debut is a melancholy pleasure.

Author Blurb Chloe Benjamin, author of The Immortalists
Full of compassion and creativity, humor and suspense, The History of Living Forever follows a vivid cast of characters as they search for the elixir of life?and the secrets they've hidden from one another. Jake Wolff's voice rings with authenticity and wisdom as he reveals that the mystery of human being has as much to do with relationships as it does with mortality. As the novel careens across countries and through centuries, building toward a climax that Wolff pulls off with astonishing panache, The History of Living Forever asks how far we'll go for the ones we love.

Author Blurb Hannah Tinti, author of The Good Thief and The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley
The History of Living Forever is a mystery wrapped in a love story wrapped in a thrilling scientific adventure ... Jake Wolff is an extraordinary alchemist, and his story's formula will linger with readers long after they turn the final page.

Author Blurb Jonathan Evison, author of West of Here and The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving
Jake Wolff has gifted us a deep, daring, adventurous, and highly entertaining debut. At turns funny, painful, philosophical, and always surprising, The History of Living Forever manages to tackle some of the big questions about being human, and still somehow remains light on its feet?not an easy task, to be sure. This book is a delight.

Author Blurb Mark Winegardner, author of Crooked River Burning and The Godfather Returns
Whip-smart, heartbreaking, engrossing, often funny, and truly original, Jake Wolff's The History of Living Forever is one of the finest debut novels I've ever read.

Author Blurb Judith Claire Mitchell, author of A Reunion of Ghosts
The History of Living Forever, Jake Wolff's dazzling debut novel about a young man's quest to discover a life-extending elixir, is a coming-of-age story but also an edge-of-your-seat thriller; a tender love story but also a rollicking buddy adventure; a celebration of the intellect but also a tribute to the human heart.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

Alchemy Across the Ages

Flammel Since the start of recorded history, as Jake Wolff's debut novel The History of Living Forever makes clear, humans have sought the elixir of life that would confer immortality. The ancient Greeks fantasized about finding ambrosia, the mythical nectar of the gods, said to be sweeter than honey; while the Chinese have eaten Lingzhi, the "mushroom of immortality," for over 2,000 years; and alchemists have sought it for about four millennia.

Mysterious and secretive, alchemists mainly aimed to transform lead into gold, believing the former to be a spiritually and physically immature form of the latter. In the Middle East and Europe, this practice went hand in hand with the search for the elixir of life, which has gone by a number of names...

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