Book Review: The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
The Immortalists, the second novel by Chloe Benjamin, introduces us to the four adolescent Gold children, from a religious Jewish family, during the steaming summer of 1969 in New York’s Lower East Side. The word on the street is that there is a traveling psychic currently installed on Hester Street who tells fortunes, including the exact date of one’s death. Not all of the children are totally on board with the idea, but with a little pressure from the oldest sibling they seek out this woman and after meeting with her individually, are each informed of their fates. It isn’t until years later that they share with each other what they have learned.
The book plays out in four parts, each examining the lives of Daniel, Varya, Klara and Simon. There is a wide divergence in their stories and fates. Simon comes out and leaves town for the free sexual scene in pre-Aids San Francisco. Klara, fascinated with magic, eventually pursues a career as a stage performer in Las Vegas; Daniel becomes a military doctor and Varya a primate researcher investigating the secrets of longevity.
The premise of the book is intriguing. The forbidden knowledge the children obtain is both curse and blessing. The story revolves around their sensitivity to matters such as the impermanence of life, destiny vs. choice, reality and illusion, and what is beyond, if anything. Does knowing when you will you die propel you to live a fuller life, or strip you of any joy in whatever time you are allotted? You wonder if they believe the psychic and if they will keep their appointed dates with death. What are the repercussions of this knowledge?
The book is well written, the unique personalities of the characters clearly fleshed-out. They are compelling, if not all entirely likable. The first part of the book moves quickly as we see Simon and Klara’s story play out. The chapters with Daniel and Varya later on are a bit slower and somewhat darker. Their stories are interesting, but do veer to a bit depressing, sometimes tragic and a little unsettling.
If you are looking for a light read, this is not for you. But it held my interest for the most part. Was the prophecy going to be true for them all? There are so many questions here, about life choices, family obligations, destiny, self-fulfilling prophesies, morality and free will, that it is quite a good pick for a book group discussion. You can start with asking “Would you want to know the day you will die?”
If you like The Immortalists, you could also try Chloe Benjamin’s debut novel, The Anatomy of Dreams.