Sunday, March 29, 2020

The Everlasting by Katy Simpson Smith, a multi-era portrait of the Eternal City

Strikingly original in its construction and settings, Smith’s novel interleaves four periods in Roman history with eight parts; the eras move back in time and then repeat.

An American aquatic biologist considers an extramarital affair with an Italian woman during a semester abroad and, while there, experiences disturbing neurological symptoms. Giulia de’ Medici, a sixteenth-century noblewoman of part-African descent, conceals an illegitimate pregnancy.

In gruesomely effective segments, Felix, the late ninth-century keeper of his monastery’s putridarium, or crypt, observes the decomposition of his former brethren while remembering his traumatic youth. Lastly, Prisca, a pubescent girl (and future martyr) in 165 CE, has unique personal reasons for embracing Christianity. She and Giulia are historical figures worth discovering.

Compared to the others, the modern era’s prose feels self-consciously literary, and its research less well-integrated; the earliest-set stories offer the strongest emotional resonance. The four are also linked through a small fishhook figuring in each. Together, they create a robustly earthy, strangely entrancing portrait of the Eternal City as the protagonists cope with the yearnings and frailties of the flesh.

The Everlasting was published by Harper this week; I reviewed it for Booklist's 12/1/19 issue.  What do you think of the colorful cover?

Some other comments: Wikipedia has more information on Giulia de' Medici, a historical figure who was new to me. You can also read more in a 2001 article at the Washington Post, focusing on a portrait of Giulia as a child, presumed to be the first in Europe to depict a girl of African descent.

St. Prisca was a child martyr in early Rome, and the church known as Santa Prisca is devoted to her memory. This church figures strongly in The Everlasting.


  1. The church figuring strongly in the book will draw me in!
    I find the cover too stark. Too bold.

    1. I agree on the cover. It catches my attention, but don't care for it much.

  2. Hmmm, I have to say neither the cover nor the story appeal to me! I'm sure the book will find it's audience though.

    1. I'm sure you're right! I liked some sections much more than others.