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The History of Living Forever

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A chemistry student falls for his teacher and uncovers a centuries-old quest for the elixir of life

The morning after the death of his first love, Conrad Aybinder receives a bequest. Sammy Tampari was Conrad’s lover. He was his teacher. And, it turns out, he was not just a chemist, but an alchemist, searching for a mythic elixir of life. Sammy’s death was sudden, yet he somehow managed to leave twenty years’ worth of his notebooks and a storage locker full of expensive, sometimes baffling equipment in the hands of his star student. The notebooks contain cryptic “recipes,” but no instructions; they tell his life story, but only hint at what might have caused his death. And Sammy’s research is littered with his favorite teaching question: What’s missing?

As Conrad pieces together the solution, he finds he is not the only one to suspect that Sammy succeeded in his quest. And if he wants to save his father from a mysterious illness, Conrad will have to make some very difficult choices.

A globe-trotting, century-spanning adventure story, Jake Wolff’s The History of Living Forever takes us from Maine to Romania to Easter Island and introduces a cast of unforgettable characters—drug kingpins, Big Pharma flunkies, centenarians, boy geniuses, and even a group of immortalists masquerading as coin collectors. It takes us deep into the mysteries of life—from first love to first heartbreak, from the long pall of grief to the irreconcilable loneliness of depression to the possibility of medical miracles, from coming of age to coming out. Hilarious, haunting, heart-busting, life-affirming, it asks each of us one of life’s essential questions: How far would you go for someone you love?

384 pages, ebook

First published June 11, 2019

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Jake Wolff

3 books65 followers

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5 stars
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273 (34%)
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262 (32%)
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87 (10%)
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27 (3%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 160 reviews
August 28, 2021
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3.75 stars (rounded up to 4 as this is a debut)

The History of Living Forever is an ambitious novel. The narrative includes multiple timelines and often switches between 1st and 3rd perspective, weaving together a compelling yet intricate story. Two of the central figures in these various 'timelines' are Conrad Aybinder and Sammy Tampari who in spite of their student-teacher relationship, and of Conrad being underage, become involved romantically. Their "liaison" however is soon cut short by Sammy's death. A grief-struck Conrad finds himself entangled in what was Sammy's search for immortality. Through Sammy's diary entries he discovers that for years Sammy had been using himself as a guinea pig. Had Sammy lost his mind? Or was he really onto something?
With this fascinating premise The History of Living Forever details Sammy and Conrad lives, moving from their childhoods to their adulthoods. They are highly intelligent individuals who are feel somewhat isolated by their intellect (both of them are high-school seniors at the age of 16), I like the fact that the narrative never romanticises their worst actions or behaviours and that other characters call them out on their 'bad antics'. I also enjoyed the way the characters around them were rendered. Wherever they had an important role or not they were engaging and realistic. I was particularly affected by the parents and relatives in this story. While Conrad's dad is an alcoholic and could have easily been relegated to the role of 'bad dad' the narrative offers a nuanced portrayal of him and his addiction.
The plot was in constant movement, shifting from past to present, jumping from one theory to the other. We learn what drives Sammy's quest for immortality and see that at the age of 40 Conrad still thinks of him.
At times I was overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of information we were given. Don't get me wrong, it was all fascinating, but science and maths are not my fortes so I think (okay, I know) that many things that went over my head. Nevertheless, I was captivated by this story which is a story about science, love, obsession, and immortality. Immortality makes for an intriguing topic, one that Wolff skilfully explores. Part of me wishes that we could have had more of Conrad and less of Sammy, or that at least we could have known what Sammy felt for Conrad.
Overall, I think this is an incredibly creative novel, one that bridges genre (coming of age, mystery, adventure, speculative fiction). While I wish that some of the characters' arcs had been handled differently, I am looking forward to reading this again (and perhaps I will have a better grasp of the theories discussed).

Profile Image for Erin .
1,231 reviews1,140 followers
Want to read
June 10, 2019
Yet another giveaway win!!!
Profile Image for Anmiryam.
776 reviews132 followers
March 21, 2019
What a moving and compelling read. You feel for both Conrad and Sam even as you are appalled by their choices. The melding of alchemy and science feels well done and believable. Like the characters you will start this book looking for certainty, but revel in the beautiful ambiguities of life by the time all is said and done.
Profile Image for Robert Sheard.
Author 4 books301 followers
October 19, 2019
The opening 50 pages and the closing 50 pages of this one are really good, but I don’t think the middle lives up to that level. There are a number of story lines, which is fine, but jumping back and forth among them was chaotic and jarring and made the entire narrative a bit less cohesive for me. It’s a fascinating premise, though.
Profile Image for Max.
523 reviews9 followers
September 8, 2019
The book started off strong with a unique premise and interesting narrative style--I liked the varying story lines, narrators, and formats for expressing the varying threads.

However, it felt like the goal of the story was more ambitious than the book was able to live up to. The book begins from Conrad's POV and ends with it, but because we spend so much time reading from Sam's POV (whether because it's a journal entry in first person or narration of the past in third person) the thread of the story that Conrad is telling loses its momentum. None of Sam's relationships felt that they conveyed any emotional depth on the page--especially his relationship with Catherine, but also Sadiq--which meant that about two thirds of the way through the book, when most of the drama is wrapped up in those relationships, it gets very tedious.

The elixer of life, and the drive to find the ingredients, is the thread that holds all the different parts of the story together but it's not enough. I skimmed the last quarter of the book just to get to the end. I could have done without any of the story that occurs in the past. I think the book would have been more emotionally compelling had it stuck with the present and not gotten sidetracked into Sam's past after he had already died because in the end, he wasn't present for the story and it was hard to care.

Sidenote: I was uncomfortable from the start with the teacher-student relationship that the narrator handwaves away, essentially. It's a problem in general--dramatic risky elements of the story that never really get fully addressed for the reader.
Profile Image for Elissa Sweet.
82 reviews11 followers
February 19, 2019
The History of Living Forever is a fresh, heartbreaking book about young love, mental illness, family and, yes, the search for the elixir of life. At the beginning of the book, 16-year-old Conrad's boyfriend Sammy—who is also his high school chemistry teacher—has just died of an apparent suicide, leaving Conrad with a box of his old journals and an unfinished recipe for the elixir of life. As Conrad sifts through the layers of mystery that composed Sammy's life, he becomes caught up in the same search that consumed Sammy: the possibility that an elixir for immortality does, in fact, exist. This book is a sweet and vulnerable look at love and growing up, a mystery that hops across continents, and a meditation on immortality and what it means for humans, but most of all, it's a thoroughly enjoyable read that kept me enchanted from beginning to end.
Profile Image for Shelby.
40 reviews3 followers
July 26, 2019
✨I won this on Goodreads, and all I can say is THIS BOOK.
I don’t know how Jake Wolff managed to fill a book with science and all the feels and keep me so entranced. I have consciously been avoiding feelings for a while now, & failed science, so...

Synopsis can easily be found anywhere, so I’ll just give you my general lowdown.

The way this is written is woven between 3 views: the POV of the present day, told through the eyes of 16 yr old Conrad, a jaded, troubled boy who returns to school to discover he’s just lost someone: his Science teacher/first love (yeah... it’s what you’re thinking. Summer was full of inappropriate behavior.)
Mr. Tampari. (Sammy)
Sammy has left Conrad all of his journals, which sets him off of a desperate quest for answers/closure and you can’t help but feel heartbroken for this kid.

The 2nd view is the life of Sammy, told through his journal entries. You’d think it’d be easy to dislike him for his role in Conrad’s life, but somehow that thing between them becomes a side note to a much deeper story. Sammy has spent his entire life trying to find the formula for the Elixir Of Life. His entries are so heartbreaking and raw. He wages a war against his mental illness throughout, and having done the same, I felt such empathy for his struggles.
Sammy is deeply flawed; his story is full of selfish decisions, wrong decisions, mistakes, heartbreak, times of probably absolute craziness, but also the eternal quest to find the way to FIX it all. To prevent the pain. To avoid the hurt.

The 3rd view is one of my favorites. Stories woven throughout random chapters with historical characters, all doing some sort of experiment or scientific observation with the same goal in mind: to either find the formula or prevent the pain. Oftentimes they are quite amusing or touching.

Jake Wolff has a special gift in that his writing is witty, sarcastic, touching, and somehow makes you feel like you’ve just actually learned something without realizing it. (Did I just get smarter?? 😆)

I’m SO happy I won this book! It’s a guarantee that I wouldn’t have picked it up, because—again—I avoid anything I suspect might give me a twinge of the feels, but DAMNIT if Jake Wolff didn’t soften me up just a little. Please write more, Mr. Wolff. I need to become human again. Maybe your writing is my elixir of life. 😉
Profile Image for Leah Spitale.
15 reviews
April 4, 2019
I loved loved loved this book. Although the plot included science and a lot of immortality talk (which didn’t interest me in the least bit) I decided to give it shot. I can’t resist an unreliable narrator and I feel that Sammy may just be the best one I’ve met in awhile. Although you are appalled by his recent choices, you can’t help but feel for him. Anyone who has ever suffered from depression can tell you that Sammy’s thoughts and feelings are spot on. It’s impossible to not feel his pain. I found myself reading several passages over and over again. There are many beautiful ones to pick from. I was so impressed by this book and I’m basically shouting it’s praises from the rooftops. I cannot wait to see what this Author writes next.
Profile Image for Nina.
183 reviews20 followers
April 18, 2019
Like a whole box of chocolates at once: some of them strange, some of them sweet, all of them irresistible.
23 reviews1 follower
July 21, 2019
While this book is well conceived and has some really nice writing on the front end, it quickly becomes didactic and uninspired. Character development and any sort emotionally driven narrative is sacrificed for pretentious exposition. By the last third of the book I’d lost interest in characters and found myself skimming my way to the inconsequential and trite ending. It’s clear Jake Wolff has talent but this ain’t it, chief.
Profile Image for Peter.
Author 4 books27 followers
August 25, 2019
I devoured the first fifty pages, which are wonderfully written and addictive. The book the began to go down more and more convoluted plot rabbit holes, though, some of which I found more interesting than others. I found the narrator engaging and believable, so when he disappeared for long stretches I grew impatient.

I love reading first novels, though, especially ambitious ones that try to tackle The Modern World and Big Questions, so if you can put up with some dull bits, this is worth checking out. And I will definitely read what Wolff does next.
Profile Image for Mindy.
347 reviews17 followers
May 18, 2019

Every once in awhile, a story comes along that simply captures your soul. The History of Living, by Jake Wolff, is one of those stories.

Taking the reader through a deluge of different voices, but primarily focused on the lives of Conrad and Sammy, Wolff showcases the worldwide, perpetual desire for the discovery of the elixir of life. Some are after it for selfish, money-hungry reasons, some are simply looking for a way to get high, but one thing is for certain- Conrad is obsessed with it to save his father.

Sammy's obsession with the elixir of life is the only thing that he can find purpose in through the darkness he feels in his everyday life, and perhaps it is this, that propels him to bring all the characters together to discover what is truly important in life. Perhaps the elixir doesn't truly work- we may never know- but is that really the point of this journey to its discovery? Life is more about the road on which it's traveled- not the destination.

The writing is brilliant and even though Conrad may never know if his and Sammy's efforts were successful, I don't find myself disappointed or unsatisfied. Even without knowing the prognosis of Conrad's husband and his brain surgery, I am left feeling full at the end. Because again...it's not about the destination. It's about the journey we create.
Profile Image for Kim.
1,221 reviews85 followers
May 6, 2019
While I found this book to be a good read there was just something about the story that I personally found unfulfilling. The premise was fresh and interesting but I feel like maybe each of the personal stories contained within were not explored enough to completely satisfy me as a reader.

That being said I would totally recommend this as a read. The search for the perfect elixir recipe was a wild ride and I enjoyed reading Sammy's story more than Conrad's to be honest. Would have loved to have read more about Bogdi and Livia and their movement, this was an undeveloped plot point I felt. How did they work on their theories? How did they get all of these ingredients?

I give this book 4/5 sparklers of Dor.

My copy was provided by NetGalley but my opinions are my own.
Profile Image for Erik.
331 reviews215 followers
October 22, 2020
Jake Wolff's "The History of Living Forever" is a creative, thought-provoking taken on the allures and tragedies of life.

Conrad, a teenager in Maine who recently lost his mother in a drunk driving accident, finds himself alone in the world when he falls in love with Sam Tarpian, his teacher. Little does he know, Mr. Tarpian, beyond being his lover, has spent his whole life piecing together the mysteries of an elixir that could allow someone to live forever. When Mr. Tarpian dies he leaves behind a chain of events, entrusting Conrad to solve the mystery of the elixir, solve the mystery of his life, and ultimately decide if living forever - or only for now - is the best way to live.

On its face, "The History of Living Forever" is an interesting book - chocked full of science and fantasy but also real, living humanity. But the book never gets you further than surface level questions; this book had the capability to potentially make readers think deeply about love and mortality, but the writing just didn't go there. And other parts of the book just seemed unnecessary: I still don't understand why a teacher-(minor)student relationship was needed for the storyline? Rather than normalize this, Wolff could have made the characters older and still had the same result.

A fine book to pass the time, but nothing to write home about. If you see "The History of Living Forever" at your library, check it out.
653 reviews
May 2, 2019
The easiest way to describe The History of Living Forever is to say it's complicated, which is also kind of how I feel about it. The book is revolves primarily around Sammy, and Conrad, a student of Sammy's that he was having an affair with before he died. In some ways it's hard to get past the ick factor of a teacher having an affair with a student but the book is so fascinating that I almost have to store it in the back of my mind and forget about it. In addition to having an affair with a student, Sammy is just...off. It's hard to know if it's just his genetic make-up, his environment growing up or his experiments with quicksilver but he both struggles and floats through life, attracting people along the way that are compelled to be around him even when he treats them cruelly, dismissively or distractedly. When he dies, he leaves his search for everlasting life in Conrad's hands. Conrad, loving Sammy and losing his father to disease, can't help but continue Sammy's research. Along the way, he learns - about Sammy, himself, and about the people that meant something to Sammy during his life. This book delves into the science of the human body to find the elixir of life, but it also delves into who we are as people, our decision-making and how that impacts the people who touch our lives.
Profile Image for Susan.
1,534 reviews36 followers
June 18, 2019
I don’t even know where to start with this review. So much went on and it was absolutely banana-pants. The historical anecdotes and recipes for the elixir were really interesting but also kind of sad. So many people died in such horrific ways just for the chance to live a longer than normal lifespan or to cure their diseases. This is only one of the shocking elements in this book which is really Sam and Conrad’s story. Conrad was a teenage student and Sam was his teacher but their “love” story is a big part of this book. It’s hard not to be uncomfortable with their relationship. This whole book was uncomfortable but so darn compelling.

This was a very unique story and unlike anything I have ever read. The writing is really well done and Conrad especially was very humorous. I was laughing within the first few pages and this light tone drew me right in. The book deals with serious issues like mental and physical illness but the humour alleviates the difficult and often sad content. It really is epic in scope and it isn’t a book I will ever forget. I will never hear “quicksilver” “mercury” or “elixir of life” without thinking of Sam and Conrad and their insane recipes.

It shocked me that all of the recipes included mercury. The explanation for this in the book made sense but I can’t imagine what would make me ever drink the stuff! When I was in high school a student dropped an old-time thermometer and the mercury ran out onto the floor. The school was evacuated and there were no classes the next day either as a hazmat clean-up team was called in. All this for one thermometer full! Sam and Conrad had gallons of the stuff just sitting in the house and it blew my mind! I know that people with terminal illnesses get desperate and I guess they have nothing to lose but holy crow this is scary!

This grand adventure in fringe medicine was hilarious, appalling, and shocking in all the best ways. I loved every minute I spent with these elixir seekers, even when it was uncomfortable and hard. I would recommend this book to anyone who loves weird medical stuff, explorations in science, or just shaking their head at the foibles of others (I love a good schadenfreude.)

Thank you to Farrar, Straus and Giroux for providing an Electronic Advance Reader Copy via NetGalley for review.
Profile Image for Megan Collins.
Author 4 books1,102 followers
February 8, 2020
THE HISTORY OF LIVING FOREVER is a unique, deeply imaginative book that explores timeless themes of grief, love, and obsession through a fresh—and scientific—lens. On the same day sixteen-year-old Conrad learns that his Chemistry teacher, Sammy (who is also Conrad’s first love), has died, he receives a box of Sammy’s journals that outline the teacher’s recipes and quest for an “elixir of life.” As Conrad navigates his grief and confusion over Sammy’s death, he decides to continue Sammy’s search, in the hopes of curing his own father of a disease hellbent on killing him. Enlisting the help of his friend RJ and people from Sammy’s past, who he learns of through the journals, Conrad becomes as deeply entrenched in the obsession for the elixir as his teacher was—but he soon learns he’s not the only one on the hunt for it. To be honest, I don’t think this book is for everyone. There are a lot of chapters that take you out of the main story to narrate other historical instances of the search for the elixir, and a lot of it gets really deep in the weeds of science. But for some readers, that will also be the book’s biggest strengths. I personally enjoy when books have a lot to do with math or science, since that’s so far from my own world, and though I got a little distracted trying so hard to *understand* the science (whether it was real or not), you don’t actually need to comprehend it to follow the heart of the story. And that heart is a teenage boy aching from love and loss, desperate not to lose anyone else in his life. Jake Wolff is a beautiful, witty writer who expertly balances the somber, serious tone of the book with the perfect amount of humor and light. I simply cannot imagine the amount of research and plotting that went into creating a book like this, and I’m in awe of how Wolff brought it all together into a story that’s ultimately very moving and hopeful.
Profile Image for Aaron Marsh.
206 reviews3 followers
November 2, 2019
Compulsive readability is a trait both overrated (by the airport-buyers, the Christmas + Easter patrons of literature) and grossly underrated (by the rest of us pretentious Pulitzer chasers) all at once. Jake Wolff has crafted a very fleet, very readable novel in The History of Living, one that had me pondering the value of those traits. Because the book definitely is too melodramatic, scattered as all hell + jam packed with too many characters, and it contains several key plot points that are incredibly hard to take seriously. But still I burned through it in a gleeful weekend, and after the arduous month I spent slogging through Swamplandia!, I really fucking appreciate how much fun I had with this book. Sometimes it’s just that simple.

The book also dealt with queer coming of age themes in a very interesting way that certainly skirted the edge of danger, and I thought it was a remarkably clear-eyed depiction of how a relationship that we (rightly; mostly) think of as predatory — teacher/student in this case — can feel like so much MORE to the younger participant, and how the ways in which that sort of ‘relationship’ (no matter how wrong it is) can change you at that age are not always for the worse. Sensitive material expertly handled. I wish I could say the same for the zillions of tragedies that befall every single character. So and so’s father has a rare liver disease masquerading as alcoholic despair; the best friend’s sister’s muscles are dissolving; a future husband has brain cancer. It’s all QUITE A LOT. I wish he had eased up on the gas re: all that, because he short changes the characters by doing this; the familiarity of excess numbs us to their many pains.

But still, I did greatly enjoy the ripping adventure of this novel, the juggling of all the timelines and all the POVs, and the sheer inventiveness he wields like an erupting sparkler throughout. Thanks for a fun, wild weekend, Mr. Wolff!

Profile Image for Barred Owl Books.
397 reviews5 followers
July 7, 2019
A chemistry student falls for his teacher and uncovers a centuries-old quest for the elixir of life

The morning after the death of his first love, Conrad Aybinder receives a bequest. Sammy Tampari was Conrad’s lover. He was his teacher. And, it turns out, he was not just a chemist, but an alchemist, searching for a mythic elixir of life. Sammy’s death was sudden, yet he somehow managed to leave twenty years’ worth of his notebooks and a storage locker full of expensive, sometimes baffling equipment in the hands of his star student. The notebooks contain cryptic “recipes,” but no instructions; they tell his life story, but only hint at what might have caused his death. And Sammy’s research is littered with his favorite teaching question: What’s missing?

As Conrad pieces together the solution, he finds he is not the only one to suspect that Sammy succeeded in his quest. And if he wants to save his father from a mysterious illness, Conrad will have to make some very difficult choices.

A globe-trotting, century-spanning adventure story, Jake Wolff’s The History of Living Forever takes us from Maine to Romania to Easter Island and introduces a cast of unforgettable characters—drug kingpins, Big Pharma flunkies, centenarians, boy geniuses, and even a group of immortalists masquerading as coin collectors. It takes us deep into the mysteries of life—from first love to first heartbreak, from the long pall of grief to the irreconcilable loneliness of depression to the possibility of medical miracles, from coming of age to coming out. Hilarious, haunting, heart-busting, life-affirming, it asks each of us one of life’s essential questions: How far would you go for someone you love?

An Amazon Best Book of June 2019
An Indie Next Selection
A Publishers Weekly Book of the Week
A Best Book of June at Cosmopolitan
A Most Anticipated Book of June at The Millions
A Best Book of Summer 2019 at Entertainment Weekly and Buzzfeed

"[In The History of Living Forever,] the mystical and the romantic combine for a love story that also confronts the meaning of life."
―Seija Rankin, Entertainment Weekly
Profile Image for Christopher McDonald.
201 reviews1 follower
July 20, 2020
2.5 stars, but I'll round up. Oh man, I REALLY wanted to love this book. It's right up my alley. I've always been fascinated with life-longevity and the stories surrounding the topic, whether it's non-fiction or fiction, sci-fi or drama, etc. I became obsessed with prolonging life after my mom passed away over a decade ago. It's something I mulled over for a long time, but therapy and time and the natural stages of grief helped me to realize and remember death is as natural as breathing.

So yeah, this book was already set-up for success before I even turned the first page. But it failed to meet my expectations. It feels all over the place; the narrative, the characters, everything. In the acknowledgements, I discovered Jake finished this book after ten years of writing it. It makes so much sense, because that's what it feels like -- drawn out and scattered. The story could have been tighter & shorter and the characters could have been spared from bleeding together. I often found myself trying to remember whose story belonged to who.

I will say Jake is a great writer. 100%! That is not lost on me. This story, however, just wasn't for me.
Profile Image for Kim McGee.
2,939 reviews55 followers
April 26, 2019
This is more a coming-of-age story about sexual identity and love than anything paranormal as the title suggests. 16-year-old Conrad falls head over heels with high school chemistry teacher Sammy. Sammy, like Conrad's emotionally distant dad, is fascinated with numbers and alchemy specifically the elixir of life. When Sammy later comes to a bad end either at his own doing or from his test trials, he leaves Con his notebooks on the elixir. Many are eager to retrieve this information however and it will create a dangerous situation but could help Con save the other men in his life the way he wasn't able to save Sammy. Quiet and introspective but also a dangerous quest these quirky characters will dig into your soul. My thanks to the publisher for the advance copy.
Profile Image for Christopher Berry.
226 reviews14 followers
July 5, 2019
This book was picked for discussion with our book club, and it was perfect! I really enjoyed this one for sure! The characters were engaging. The story was very interesting! The author did an amazing job with everything! The reader is going to become engrossed in this awesome book, and they might learn some scientific facts along the way!
Author 2 books6 followers
June 23, 2021
A big, bold, ambitious, emotive first novel that defies easy categorization - it's part love story, part chemistry experiment, part forensics investigation, part family drama, part reflection on grief. At times, it threatens to collapse under the weight of its breadth, but for me, any novel that can leave you wiping your eyes a bit at the end has to be seen as a successful work of fiction.
Profile Image for Jordan B.
460 reviews7 followers
July 5, 2020
When it's good, it's very good but for the most part I was quite bored
Profile Image for Kathie Yang.
80 reviews33 followers
April 9, 2023
genuinely cannot tell if it’s a “Good” Book™ but it made me feel so awful so 5 stars
Profile Image for Mary.
453 reviews
August 6, 2019
A very science oriented way to look at immortality.
Profile Image for Kristi.
299 reviews
September 30, 2022
I immediately got wrapped up in this tale of love stories, mental illness, and the search for the elixir of eternal life. Sammy, even though not very relatable, was a compelling character. I found Conrad much less interesting—in fact, I think the whole book might have been better without his part in the story.

The mixing of timelines was a bit disconcerting at times, but it did allow the story to unfold at its own pace. I thought that the very end of the book was needlessly vague. Overall, this was a satisfying read and I would recommend this book.
Profile Image for Don.
150 reviews15 followers
November 9, 2019
(FROM MY BLOG) Conrad lives in a small town in Maine. He is a brilliantly precocious science student who has skipped two grades as he worked his way through the public school system. He lost his mother in an auto accident when he was ten, and his distraught father took to drinking and showed little further interest in him. Conrad now lives with an aunt.

The summer he turns 16, he falls desperately in love with -- has an affair with -- Mr. Tampari ("Sammy" to Conrad), a brilliant biochemist who, strangely enough, has ended up teaching chemistry to high school students.

Jake Wolff's novel, The History of Living Forever, is a complex, frustrating, and yet somehow inspiring study of scientific obsession, adolescent and adult loneliness, and human insecurity, peppered with enough biochemical scientific studies (real or fictional) and data to persuade you that you've attended a series of college lectures.

The first day of class, as Conrad begins his junior year after a summer of romantic intoxication, the school announces that Mr.Tampari has been discovered dead, apparently from a drug overdose. The death is considered accidental. But Conrad finds that Sammy has left him a gift -- a box containing all his diaries, one for each year since he was eight years old, and a handwritten book of "recipes," entitled "The Elixir of Life." Did he in fact commit suicide?

Sammy has also given indications that he wants Conrad to carry on his research, whatever that research may have been. Conrad is devastated by Sammy's death, and by a suspicion that Conrad's love for his teacher was in fact reciprocated by nothing much beyond mild affection. Otherwise, how could he have left Sammy behind, alone?

Conrad, now in his 40s, is the narrator, but the real story is Sammy's. This is no conventional gay love story -- nor, alternatively viewed, a story of a teacher's sexual abuse of a student. (Conrad concedes that, even 25 or so years later, he still remembers his relationship with Sammy as an intense "romance.") Their relationship is a plot device that explains a strong bond between two highly intelligent people, both almost fanatically immersed in bio-scientific studies.

Sammy's diaries begin when he was eight years old. He was painfully brilliant even then.
At school, he is so much smarter than his classmates that he feels the weight of their stupidity on his chest -- even after the bell rings, like waking up from a nightmare to find yourself suffocating, still, under the heart-crushing burden of your fear.
Sammy has no friends. He is convinced his parents don't love him. He believes that, somehow, he is "broken." "Broken," in the sense that he is incapable of feeling love, feeling emotion, feeling joy, feeling sadness, feeling excitement. He is numb.

But he soldiers on. He has no real enthusiasms, not even reading.
In bed each night, he cries from 10:00 to 10:15 (he sets the timer on his bedside clock). It's almost a relief, this crying, though he can't explain from what.
Years later, Sammy concludes that he is and always has been, in some sense, mentally ill.

As a child, his psychiatrist told him that he needed a hobby. He learned, from a club to which his father belonged, of the ancient quest for an elixir -- not an elixir that necessarily allowed one to live forever, but that served as a panacea for any diseases that the taker might have. Sammy's single-minded quest for such an elixir provides him the structure, the direction, the focus that his life needed.

The book, in chapters throughout, provides case histories of alchemists, scientists, and deluded amateurs who had hoped to develop such an elixir, case histories that Sammy carefully studied.

A recurring ingredient in past recipes had been the element mercury. The "blue mass" that Abraham Lincoln took to fight depression contained such mercury. At age 13, Sammy reconstructed this "blue mass," and consumed a large dosage himself, writing up his experiment as his first entry in his "recipe book." The result? "Almost died," he wrote, laconically. .

His brush with death did not deter him. He continued, obsessively, throughout life to find a "recipe" for the elixir that would cure all ills, and that would cure his own self-diagnosed "mental illness." The novel strikes the reader as a source book on the history of various misguided attempts to develop such a panacea, and a treasury of human biochemistry. Unfortunately, the book is an untrustworthy biochemistry resource, with carefully documented science combined with ideas and hopes by the ancients, by Sammy, and finally by Conrad that amount to scientific quackery. As the author firmly warns in his introduction
You will find within its pages a number of recipes, all of which seem to promise great benefits to your health and well-being. To repeat: this is a work of fiction. Every recipe in this book, if ingested, will kill you. Every single one.
From a scientific point of view, certain substances found in nature have the beneficial ability to remove free radicals from the human body, free radicals that may contribute to the aging and degenerative process. These substances cannot, in any significant amount, however, cross the brain-blood barrier. But mercury can cross that barrier. Sammy's recipes, in effect, used mercury to drag the drugs with it across the barrier. But mercury is a poison, and will kill if it remains in the brain for any length of time, and the body quickly attacks its ability to cross the barrier once it's detected in the brain. This attack by the body is counterproductive, because it leaves the mercury trapped on the brain side of the barrier.

Thus, many early experiments with mercury, used in sufficient amounts, resulted in death. In Wolff's novel, Conrad comes eventually to believe that he can overcome this hazard by concluding the experiment with electroshock, such as used in fighting depression, which temporarily reopens the brain-blood barrier, allowing the mercury to escape.

Conrad's apparent understanding -- still at the age of 16 --of the scientific basis for the use of various substances, including mercury, in the course of the many attempts to concoct the "elixir of life" -- and his discovery of the use of electroshock therapy to avoid mercury poisoning -- is a central theme of the novel. If science bores or confuses you -- and there is much about this book that's confusing -- you may want to read a different book.

Conrad's scientific quest to continue Sammy's research, and to apply it to his own dying, alcoholic father, is complicated by a subplot involving competing interests and individuals who are themselves trying to develop the same "elixir of life" for purposes of commercial exploitation. I'm not sure that this subplot and its villains, which occupies a major portion of the book's central chapters, adds much to the story. It certainly adds complexity to what is already a complex narrative.

At the end, the father's life is saved, as Conrad uses the last of the drugs that Sammy had left for him. Whether it has been saved by Conrad's "elixir of life," or by subsequent more conventional diagnosis and treatment, remains an open question -- maybe a bit of both.

As his father recovers in the hospital, Conrad is re-united with his loving aunt who had grown understandably alarmed at Conrad's many absences from home. And his father expresses his love for him.

In the final chapter, Conrad -- now in his 40s -- waits fretfully in a hospital to learn whether cancer surgery on his partner has been successful. He watches a five-year-old boy who is anxiously waiting with his mother for news of his own. Each time someone comes into the room the boy tenses up, then sighs with disappointment when the news is for someone else.
[M]y God, it's a beautiful thing -- a five-year-old boy, learning his limits, surprising himself and his mother with his first act of patience. Watching him, I remember all of those feelings: the fear, the frustration, the hope for the future. I remember being young, when there was nothing worse than waiting.
Over the years, Conrad has learned that -- for all their common brilliance -- he was not like Sammy. He was not broken. When he was 16, he had volunteered the words "I love you" to Sammy, a declaration that Sammy was unable to return. After Sammy's death, Conrad continued Sammy's research -- partly because of its intrinsic interest, but primarily out of respect for Sammy's wishes. At the end, he returns his aunt's love and that of his father. His temporary estrangement from home had been proof that he was a teenager, not that he was broken.

He loves his partner as an adult, and he shows empathy for a small boy, a tiny bird first spreading his wings.

Wolff says that it took him ten years to write The History of Living Forever, and I can believe it. It is well-written, beautifully written at times. It is intelligent, both with respect to science and with respect to human emotion. It required a second reading for me to write about it in this blog, and I'm sure it still contains enough puzzles to justify, someday, a third.
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378 reviews14 followers
April 29, 2019
Conrad Aybinder, a sixteen year old genius, has been thrust into his recently deceased teacher's search for the formula for the Elixir of Life in THE HISTORY OF LIVING FOREVER by Jake Wolff. The deceased teacher, Sammy Tampari, was also his first love. As Conrad digs deeper into Sammy's research, questionable people from Sammy's past appear and Conrad has to decide who to trust, all the while trying to determine why Sammy has orchestrated an elaborate plan to guide Conrad to the Elixir of Life.
The book is about the scientific and emotional discovery for Conrad that morphs into a high stakes adventure to find the elusive formula for eternal life that Sammy Tampari has been searching for. Wolff weaves Conrad's present, Sammy's past, and historical reference on self scientific experimentation harmoniously so that the story is always progressing and entertaining at the same time. Conrad is a character that a reader can connect with and cheer for almost immediately, as so many of us as teenagers struggled with who we are and what we want. As the plot moves forward, Wolff begins to subtly layer characters and events on top of each other so that at the climax of the book the story is rich with texture and presents pleasantly complex puzzle that Conrad has to find his way through.
Heartfelt and captivating, THE HISTORY OF LIVING FOREVER is a book I won't soon forget. Wolff has created a book that is both moving and inspires introspection into one's soul; and all along the way, some thrilling and fun searching for missing pieces and people that keeps the book exciting.
Thank you to Farrar, Straus and Giroux, as well as Jake Wolff and Netgalley for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!
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