The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin – 352 pages
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.
My Review: 4.5 stars
The Immortalists is a literary fiction family drama that balances the premise of living by fate or free will. Do we live our lives by circumstance or intention? After four children visit a nomadic gypsy to find out the date of their deaths, this knowing forever torments their lives, a whisper in the recesses of their minds of how much time they have left. Whether it’s true or not, they can’t know, but they wonder if their lives will become self fulfilling prophecies or led by chance alone.
Broken into four distinct parts for each of the four kids, we learn how their lives play out. Some parts were very predictable while others were more surprising. Each character went in vastly different directions both figuratively and literally. I enjoyed Simon’s character even though it was the most predictable. I’ve never read a book that offered such a focused glimpse into the gay scene of the 1960s. Watching him come alive, out of his long hidden sexuality, was well done. Each of the parts were impeccably researched. It must have been quite taxing on the author.
The writing in this book switched from literary, to poetic, to simple, which worked for me. However one thing that turned me off was the random sexual reference that was completely unnecessary. For example: describing Varya by having a “patch of fur” between her legs seemed gratuitous in my opinion. How does that help me know the character? Again, I was slightly jarred during the pointless imagery of penises when Simon was in San Francisco. I’m no prude; these just felt out of place with the tone of the book.
The final part to the book and also the one in which much of the story converges belongs to Varya. Her path and ultimate outcome came with a few twists and a great understanding of why she chose her profession. Most readers will like this part the best I believe.
The book promises an underlying of magical realism and mystical moments, which I didn’t get much of. It by no means hindered my reading experience, it just didn’t fit the PR the novel has been getting. Magic practiced as an art form is present and important, but not as an otherworldly force that I thought would be present.
Kudos to Chloe Benjamin for creating a thought provoking book that will leave book clubs divided as they battle the question of how live is lived…free will or fate?
Quotes I liked:
Klara has always known she’s meant to be a bridge: between reality and illusion, the present and the past, this world and the next. She just has to figure out how.”
-“But I think magic holds the world together. It’s dark matter; it’s the glue of reality, the putty that fills the holes between everything we know to be true. And it takes magic to reveal how inadequate reality is.”
-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.”
-She’d tell herself that what she really wanted was not to live forever, but to stop worrying…”