cover image The Everlasting

The Everlasting

Katy Simpson Smith. Harper, $28.99 (352p) ISBN 978-0-06-287364-4

In this symphonic novel, Smith (Free Men) composes delicate variations on faith, love, and human transience in the eternal city. An American scientist leaves his family behind and travels to modern-day Rome to study crustaceans and debates returning after meeting a new woman. In the 16th century, Guilia de Medici, a “bastard princess” with African roots, is married off to a man she loathes, but not before becoming pregnant with her lover’s child. A ninth-century monk presides over his deceased colleagues in the monastery’s putridarium while reflecting on his illicit love for another boy back when he was a teen. In second-century pagan Rome, the early Christian martyr Prisca embraces the new faith at a dangerous time for believers. Smith elegantly ties these narratives together with a fishhook, which, depending on the century, is a utilitarian object, prized relic, or rusty bit of trash. Satan occasionally interrupts the narration with grating apercus (“Oh, chickie, there is no line between pain and want”) but also keen observations on Rome and the novel’s structure: “Rome is a dream; its cobbles are slick with sweat and lust, the stuff of sleep. You cannot move forward here, only up and down.” The further Smith digs into Rome’s layered past, the more captivating the story becomes. This is an ambitious novel whose characters must choose between sensual or spiritual love, gratification or self-abnegation, principled martyrdom or survival. Agent: Bill Clegg, the Clegg Agency. (Mar.)