The Everlasting

Written by Katy Simpson Smith
Review by Susan Lowell

Andiamo a Roma!

We’ll visit the Eternal City four times in Katy Simpson Smith’s brilliant new novel The Everlasting, set in Rome in the years 2015, 1559, 886, and 165.

Pack your conversational Italian, a little Latin, some historical maps, and plenty of curiosity. Leave your squeamishness behind: true history’s not for sissies. Prepare to learn new words (ostracod, putridarium) in this deeply researched examination of the everlasting weirdness of love and religion. Prepare, also, to be dazzled by Smith’s virtuosity.

Each trip immerses us in a mystery in a fully imagined world seen through the eyes of two aging men and two vital young women. And yet Smith cleverly hooks them all together. The Aventine (southernmost of Rome’s seven hills) provides unity of place, and the early Christian martyr St. Prisca serves as one of several unifying themes. Many tinier connections make this novel worthy of the highest honor: rereading.

Rome stands on its own past, like Santa Prisca’s little Aventine church built atop a temple to the god Mithras, atop a classical villa. Like an archaeological dig, The Everlasting delves into relics of the everlasting past. Some characters are based on historical figures, like Giulia de’ Medici and Prisca. Smith’s imagination enlivens them—though the real Giulia, depicted as a dismal, shapeless widow in her lone existing portrait, might not recognize her sexy fictional self.

Smith’s glorious prose is occasionally dissonant: would these characters really use words like monetize, self-absorbed, and squirrelly?

Well, maybe. Once I shepherded twelve rambunctious middle-schoolers down a modern Roman street … straight toward several Italian military guards armed with jackhammer-sized automatic weapons. “Don’t you get squirrelly now!” I hissed.

If only—if only—some jumpy chaperone had restrained young Prisca!