THE FIRST LOVE STORY: Adam, Eve, and Us, by Bruce Feiler. Penguin Press, 306 pp., $28.
Bruce Feiler’s quest to find the modern relevance of Adam and Eve took him to all the likely (and some unlikely) hot spots: the Sistine Chapel, Iraq, Israel and the Galápagos Islands. Feiler, a serial best-selling author, husband and father, got a bee in his bonnet that ol’ Adam and Eve aren’t getting their due these days.
“At every stage of Western civilization for the last three thousand years, one story has stood at the center of every conversation about men and women,” he writes in the opening pages of “The First Love Story: Adam, Eve, and Us.”
Feiler’s big question comes several paragraphs later: “Can Adam and Eve be role models for relationships today?” By the end of the first chapter, he asserts that “this story speaks in profound and unexpected ways to the deepest yearnings of human beings today.”
Feiler, with the spirit of a globe-trotting archaeologist, crosses a few continents to prove his point. He starts, naturally, in Mesopotamia. An hour south of Baghdad, where the Garden of Eden might have been, he finds a traffic jam and a pack of guys intent on robbing him. Paradise, it seems, was indeed lost.
But the excursion gives Feiler an opening to place the story of Adam and Eve in the context of history. What sets our fair couple apart from the religious stories of antiquity is that they were created by one god and had relations only with each other.
Much of “The First Love Story” is spent swimming around in others’ interpretations of Adam and Eve. Perhaps because there is such precious little written about them in the Bible, Feiler had no choice but to plumb others’ thoughts on the matter.
This tact takes Feiler to Israel, where he meets with a biblical scholar, and to Rome, where he talks his way into not one, but two guided viewings of Michelangelo’s masterpiece in the Sistine Chapel. There he asks an art historian what we can learn from Adam and Eve. “That we’re made for love,” she responds. “That’s what the initial image shows. We were made out of love, and we were made for love.”
It’s a beautiful, profound sentiment. But it might not provide much comfort to a single person desperately searching for the one. Or to a married person turning over in bed convinced that they chose the wrong one.
And that, ultimately, is my quibble with this exhaustively researched, lyrically written book. So many pages are spent arguing that Adam and Eve are meaningful to modern readers, but precious few are spent conveying that practical relevance.
The chapter that raced along most briskly was about a German couple who left their spouses in 1929 to re-create Eden in the Galápagos Islands. The pair ate tropical fruits, romped around naked — and came to loathe each other after a while. They also attracted a few hangers-on, one of whom turned their paradise into a murder scene.
This tale even has a (quasi) happy ending. Yes, the would-be Adam died after eating spoiled chicken in their fifth year. But the couple reconciled before he kicked it. “A stillness and happiness that we had never known before united us in the last month in more than human oneness,” the woman later wrote.
Feiler’s take-away from their experiment is one that will resonate with anyone who has cohabited: “The nature of human relationships makes it inherently hellish to live in close proximity with another human being for long periods of time.”
In his final chapter, Feiler offers the six key insights he gleaned from his investigation. He says that the original couple demonstrate that, among other things, love is about connectedness, constancy and care. (Feiler thinks his subjects could’ve done better on that last front.)
The line that stuck with me most came early on in the book. “One of the most effective things you can do to improve your quality of life is to succeed in the one aspect of life that’s most difficult to pull off — love,” Feiler writes.
“The First Love Story” is not a foolproof guide on how to succeed in love. But it will make readers want to try.