The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin is a 2018 G.P. Putnam’s Sons publication.
In a novel, so centered on death, there is a tremendous amount of life and living within these pages.
Beginning in 1969, the four Gold siblings boldly knock on the door of a fortune teller who then proceeds to impart to them the one thing nobody knows when they enter this world- the exact day you will die.
For better or worse, Varya, Daniel, Klara and Simon cope with this heavy information, but, their approach to life, their attitudes and actions could not be more different.
How will they decide to live their lives? By throwing caution to the wind, living every moment like it counts, or will they become a slave to the fortune teller’s predictions? What would you do if you knew the exact date of your earthly departure?
Each of the siblings will have a segment dedicated to their life story, beginning with Simon, the youngest of the four.
Getting through Simon’s story, the outcome of which is easy to predict, could make some readers a bit uncomfortable, as it is quite explicit. However, it is also very authentic and captures the era, the fear, the location, and atmosphere of the era perfectly. Simon’s story sets the stage for a riveting family saga that prompts the reader to wonder just how much of our lives are controlled by elements such as pure luck or destiny and how much control we have over our own future. Can we help dire predictions along- force them to happen when they may not have otherwise? Is too much information advantageous or does it work against us in the end?
It’s an interesting proposal and discussions about these concepts could be very deep, which would make this novel a fantastic book club read.
I did have some trouble with the plausibility or probability of certain events in the story, but looking past that, I was fascinated by the psychological effects obtaining information about the future had on the characters. The last segment is maybe the most revealing, and perhaps the deepest area of the story as the quest for longevity replaces the pleasure of really living one’s life with gusto.
This story has some magical elements, but overall, it’s a family saga, one that is perhaps a bit heavy, a little mournful, but not necessarily bleak.
I put this review off for a little while unsure of how to relay my feelings about the book. I’m glad I read it, as it did challenge me, forcing me to consider deep, philosophical subjects about life and death, faith, destiny, our susceptibility to suggestion, just to name a few. But, for me, the prose and characterizations is what really makes this novel stand out.
I’m not sure if this is a novel I would ever revisit, or if these are subjects I want to address frequently, but, anytime a novel can take me into an unknown realm, one that is a little out of my element or comfort zone, I respect it, and give credit where credit is due.
“There are two major theories about how to stop aging…”
“…It sounds like you’re saying we can choose to live. Or we can choose to survive.”
Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists is a thoughtfully executed novel written in simple, yet often poetic, prose that allowed the characters’ voices at their most forceful to shine on their own past the narrative itself. More than that, it is a novel crafted around a question we all ask ourselves more often than we’d care to admit: “Is it more important to truly live or to survive? To dare to dream at our grandest or to play it safe?” And, if you knew the exact day on which you’d die, would you live your life any differently than you would without that hateful knowledge?
In their youth, the Gold siblings follow a rumor to the home of a Gypsy fortune teller who gives them the knowledge they seek: the exact dates of their deaths. These prophecies propel them forward for the rest of their lives, influencing their decisions, changing the courses of their lives and plunging the question into the forefront of their minds forever: Was the fortune teller right, and, if so, can they change the course of their own fates?
It’s an intriguing idea, we must all admit. A scary one. A downright chilling one. And the leitmotif Benjamin poses to her reader manifests itself throughout the novel with compelling force, from the exploration of God and country’s place within our existence, to what the prophecy of one’s own death does to such beliefs. Do we cling to such notions and ingrained dogmas all the way to the end, cowering under them safely like warm, childhood blankets, or using them to fortify us in our resolve and everyday decisions—or, do we slough off and away such religious and secular beliefs and become our own reason for living, our own life force, whether to our own detriment or benefit?
The Immortalists bounds along a timeline spanning five decades, trotting through the start of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco—
“You weren’t terrified?”
“No, not then…When doctors said we should be celibate, it didn’t feel like they were telling us to choose between sex and death. It felt like they were asking us to choose between death and life. And no one who worked that hard to live life authentically, to have sex authentically, was willing to give it up.”
¬–toward Las Vegas in the 80s and into the early years of this century, tackling tough questions, such as the logistics behind increasing the human lifespan—and the politics of attempting such a thing. For readers who enjoy novels of sweeping timelines, they’re sure to find a treat in Benjamin’s latest novel. The period settings weren’t quite as immersive as I’d hoped—the societal and technological differences in backdrop between the decades were noted but not submerging in a way that allowed me to really feel I was moving from decade to decade with true authenticity. However, what I did take from this book were lessons to carry with me, delivered by poignant phrasing that outshone the actual stories of the four siblings’ lives. And that resonated loudly enough to forgive such specifics.
I had an interesting relationship with this novel as I continued my reader’s affair with it. I could not relate specifically to any one of the characters in this book. I would not have been friends with any of them in real life, and I did feel that some of the plotlines were predictable. BUT, I learned a lesson from every single one of the siblings that I took with me until the end, and each of those moments of recognition were special.
What do you want?…and if [she] answered him honestly she would have said this: To go back to the beginning. She would tell her thirteen-year-old self not to visit the woman. To her twenty-five-year old self: Find Simon, forgive him…She’d tell herself she would die, she would die, they all would…She’d tell herself that what she really wanted was not to live forever, but to stop worrying…”
This is a novel with a strong core and a big heart, with a moral and a central theme to tie all the threads together. Chloe Benjamin’s second novel continued her thus-far-established trend of exploring existential questions in our everyday lives, creating a brand for her that is sure to glimmer and shine, attracting new readers from far and wide. 4 stars ****
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