Engrossing and imaginative (though the bracketed discourse is a bit disrupting), Simpson Smith's novel is a difficult, didactic. but ultimately rewarding read. The novel tells the story of four characters who live in Rome, a city that for almost two thousand years has attempted to burst out of the culture of religious repression and into the modern world of boundaries individualism and alienation. In 2015 in a rented flat, Tom's talks with his daughter Daphne on the phone. Tom's a biochemist, researching with a "carnivorous frenzy" the study of the effects of chemical pollution on aquatic crustacean populations.
Ten years married but "one well-timed semester apart," Tom is ensconced in Caffarella Valley where he encounters someone called the "Janiculum girl." He's attracted despite the tingling in his hands and the periods of dizziness along with the starry vision and occasional lurches of memory.
In 1559, Giulia has been married to her new husband for four days. A wealthy Medici, Giulia believes happiness is having to surrender nothing. Now living in Rome with all “its clutter, its stink, the hodgepodge of stone and brick," Giulia meets the painter Alessandro Allori, who for a time at least seems to free her from her knot and veil. For Giulia, seduction is a game of power, not affection, for its tricked desire and occasionally overrode consent.
In 1896-97, exiled and secluded monk Felix runs "the crypt." In a limbo of his own, Felix is caught between the mild promise of heaven and the bustle of men. For now, his old friend Bernardo is "the most robust of all the corpses" perched on their thrones in his poor stone church on the hill where Remus set up his challenge to Romulus. A current stone sanctuary, Felix's church is a "cake of corpses."
Twelve-year-old Prisca faces a similar quandary. It is 165 AD, and Christians are being indiscriminately fed to the lions and drought is a part of daily life. Determined to speak her own mind, Prisca is drawn to this new religion. In this world, the threat of war stalks both believers and barbarians. For Prisca, flesh is to be mortified "and flesh is to be risen." Humanness sets Christianity apart from the religions of Prisca's childhood.
The author plunges us into the ageless world of Roman society with all of its pettiness and human meanness. Everything is hotter in the city. Giulia feels the grip on her ankles, rubbing up her calves. Past the expanse of the Circus Maximus, Prisca sees the temples rising "like mushrooms" to the palace of the emperor Marcus Aurelius. She once offered her small small-girl treasures to Apollo at the family shrine, but the God offered nothing back.
The permanence of the land gives the author a solid, elemental stage on which to enact the powerful passions and intractable dilemmas of her main characters. Tinged with melodrama and infused with a love of the wildness of nature and the duplicity of religion and science, The Everlasting evokes the transcendent beauty of this great European city on the hill in all its human frailty and splendor.