... beguiling ... a science fiction story, a gay romance, and a Hardy Boys mystery all rolled into one. It’s many more things, too, partly because the ultimate moral dilemma of its teenaged protagonist lifts the book above any specific genre. But at its core, Wolff’s book does what all good novels do: It makes an unfamiliar world feel familiar. It moves us with beautifully limned characters. It takes us on a wild ride of twists and turns that place us in the past, present and the future ... The personal stories of Conrad and RJ encourage us to consider the ethical side of medicine we struggle with today ... Wolff consistently grounds the book in the science of the boys’ quest ... For those whose interest in science is limited to the broad strokes of political discourse (climate change, genetic research), these descriptions may seem to bog the story down somewhat, but they’re essential to give credibility to Wolff’s fantastical plot ... Perhaps what’s most impressive about the novel is that most of the time it is able to address these lofty issues without losing its ability to entertain ... might be a nice palliative for those grieving the end of The Big Bang Theory, or for those who simply appreciate good writing.
Jake Wolff’s debut novel, The History of Living Forever is an ambitious and emotionally raw thing, starting and ending with grief, with a twisting alchemical plot tying these human moments together ... This framing of the elixir as a quest not only for immortality, but for normalcy and belonging, is unique amongst the host of alchemy-based SFF I’ve read and seen. It turns the question of 'the cure' on its head—if mortality is something no human can escape from, so too are our positions as outsiders, as queers, as mentally-ill, as 'broken.' And, the book seems to argue, that can be as painful as it is immutable as it is beautiful. If there’s one thing The History of Living Forever doesn’t offer, it’s an easy answer. It is, after all, not a catch-all elixir. The History of Living Forever is a page-turner in all its mysteries, both scientific and psychological. It’s the kind of book you think of long after you’ve finished it, whether you liked it or not—and I did like it. I suspect some will be upset by the novel’s central romance, and that’s understandable. But its project is a nuanced one, emotionally real even if it’s not morally inspiring. It’s very worth mulling over.
The many flashbacks and multiple time lines, plus the historical asides into prior misguided attempts to find the secret of immortality, create a variegated panorama that risks confusing readers. The story of the teenage Sammy parallels that of the teenage Conrad, and readers will have to stay on their toes to differentiate them. Wolff's narrative moves forward to a conclusion that's anticlimactic and grounded, disappointingly, in reality; that so many intelligent people sought out the elixir seems implausible. But the story isn't really about that. It's about growing, developing relationships, and learning to live ... A noteworthy first novel.
... [an] exuberant debut novel ... Wolff is clearly having fun as he shuffles his narrative deck ... But the novel’s superabundance finally works against it. A central issue is Wolff’s insistence on overburdening his characters with trauma. Conrad’s father is dying; his mother has died; his high school teacher and lover has died; his best friend’s sister is dying; his husband is sick. Wolff, aiming to convey how unbearable the death of a loved one can be—and how seductive a fantasy of immortal life might be in consequence—wagers that any one of these agonies will secure his reader’s sympathy. But the indiscriminate piling on of do-or-die stakes serves to diffuse concern. 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...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. As the history of science shows, some experiments have value for their success; others for their failure.
Wolff’s imagining of how medicine works in the future is definitely not the main point of his work, even if it twists nicely with Sam’s elixir quest. On the whole, Wollf’s The History of Living Forever is a touching tale about fathers and sons and love that hovers on the divide between literary and genre fiction. He breaks expectations about what literary fiction should be in engaging ways—there are recipes, for example—and creates fully formed (and frequently difficult) characters. He’ll also make you think about the idea of living forever and why you’d want to in the first place.
Skipping from ancient China to present-day Maine to a future New York City, Wolff’s kaleidoscopic novel...reminds us that life so rarely becomes clearer with age. 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.
More than just a briskly plotted thriller, the book is a meditation on love and loss. The characters’ obsession with the elixir brings home the parallels between eternal life and death ... The best part is the author’s figurative descriptions, which teeter between quips and revelations ... This beautifully written, carefully plotted, intelligent debut is a melancholy pleasure.