Title: The Immortalists
Author: Chloe Benjamin
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons/Penguin Publishing
Length: 352 Pages
Category: Literary Fiction
At a Glance: Cerebrate and not lacking in pathos, author Chloe Benjamin persuades readers to confront the concept of freewill and the inevitability of our own mortality, entwining it in the complexity of familial bonds and our sense of connectedness to the world around us.
Reviewed By: Lisa
Blurb: If you were told the date of your death, how would it shape your present?
It’s 1969 in New York City’s Lower East Side, and word has spread of the arrival of a mystical woman, a traveling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die. The Gold children—four adolescents on the cusp of self-awareness—sneak out to hear their fortunes.
Their prophecies inform their next five decades. Golden-boy Simon escapes to the West Coast, searching for love in ’80s San Francisco; dreamy Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician, obsessed with blurring reality and fantasy; eldest son Daniel seeks security as an army doctor post-9/11, hoping to control fate; and bookish Varya throws herself into longevity research, where she tests the boundary between science and immortality.
Review: Beginning a review by stating that this book isn’t going to be for everyone is a bit of pointing out the obvious—water is wet, coffee is life, reading is fundamental… This novel is about the concept that we are all temporary, and its characters are the vehicles used to drive that message home. The Immortalists is a book about life and death, the single human condition that transcend race, religion, gender and sexuality, and is explored in unvarnished truths through the AIDS epidemic, mental illness, alcoholism, suicide, war, survivor’s guilt, and the consequences of our own actions and decisions. As such, you won’t find a saccharine novel built around the happily ever after we often seek out in our fiction here, so forewarned is forearmed.
If you were told the date of your death, how would it shape your present?
This question is reflected upon in the life stories of four characters, the Gold siblings—Varya, Daniel, Klara, and Simon—and the people who are, or who will become, significant to them along their unique life journeys. Their collective story begins in New York City, ca. 1969, as four children whose curiosity gets the better of them. Their visit to a neighborhood fortune teller to learn the dates of their death is the catalyst as we follow them from young, impressionable, terrified and yet curious kids who have pooled their meager savings to visit the rishika they’ve heard rumors about, and on through the completion of their life experiences. What they do with the rishika’s predictions, how they choose to live from that moment on, is the impetus for the self-reflection that will give each reader ownership over this story. The Immortalists introduces some of the more amorphous themes surrounding fate and destiny, and life and death, and requires its readers to rifle through and unpack our own beliefs and ideas to examine these themes.
The book is divided into four parts, each Gold sibling telling their own story, each section dense with a feeling of inevitability, but in the end, there is a reckoning of sorts that allows us all to see this novel for what it is in its most basic terms: an examination of freewill and the power of suggestion. We each are in control of our choices, and it’s what we do with those choices that determines what we become. Benjamin poses some complex question with no clear cut or easy answer: How would knowing the exact date of your death shape the way you live? Would it encourage you to live recklessly and in such a way that made the prediction a self-fulfilling prophecy, or would you live with so much caution that you were reduced to a mere placeholder in our collective existence—living but not truly alive? Our answers are pure conjecture, obviously, because there would be so many variables to consider, but it makes for some interesting food for thought nonetheless.
There are many things I appreciated about this book, not the least of which is its title. To entitle a book which confronts the irrefutable fact that we are all temporary The Immortalists is a nice oxymoron. I appreciate the irony of that as well as that of its characters now finding their own immortality of sorts in the written word. Though I was only four years old in 1969, when the story begins, I still found myself relating to some of the early events and details with a sense of nostalgia, something I’m sure is owed more to my recalling their historical relevance than they are true memories, but even if I didn’t comprehend their meaning then—the war in Vietnam, Woodstock, the moon landing, et al—there’s still what I would call a sense memory of sorts of a time fraught with change and social upheaval which I appreciated as it gave the story a personal touch. 1969 was a year of political tumult and significant social and cultural milestones, the Stonewall riots included.
There are some great twists in the story, some explosive revelations, things I didn’t see coming until they were staring me in the face, which I appreciated. And, of course, there’s the question of the rishika’s role and her influence on four impressionable children. Is she a charlatan who plants a suggestion and then becomes culpable when it goes on to become a self-fulfilling prophesy, or was she simply the purveyor of destiny for those who would seek to find? Either way, we are the helpless voyeurs as each character becomes a pawn in their own story, awaiting the day of their death to arrive, and I found myself mourning their loss of innocence as they carried the burden of their knowledge. The gift of our armchair wisdom allows us to see that a little ignorance can sometimes be a good thing, and on more than one occasion I thought, ‘If only…’ If only Simon had lived long enough for the medical breakthroughs that happened in spite of a dispassionate government. If only Klara had been diagnosed and treated. If only Daniel hadn’t been filled with so much guilt and regret and anger…
There’s one thing about this story that I’m still debating weeks later, wondering if it was a glaring flaw in the storytelling or just a clever metaphor for the whims of chance. There’s a resolution of massive coincidence and one character in particular whose sole purpose seems to be to show up in the right place at the right time. This bothered me. A lot. Especially where he pops up for the final time. But, then again, when we’re discussing something as ambiguous as fate and destiny, are there any true coincidences? I liked that the book left me with yet another question to brood over, and the fact that the author didn’t spell it all out and tidy things up gave me ownership over my own conclusions which made the reading all the more personal.
Cerebrate and not lacking in pathos, author Chloe Benjamin persuades readers to confront the concept of freewill and the inevitability of our own mortality, entwining it in the complexity of familial bonds and our sense of connectedness to the world around us.
You can buy The Immortalists here:
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