The Immortalistsby Published 09 Jan 2018
|Publisher||G.P. Putnam's Sons|
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.
"The Immortalists" Reviews
"And what if I change?" It seems impossible that Varya's future is already inside her like an actress just offstage, waiting decades to leave the wings.
"Then you'd be special. 'Cause most people don't."
2 1/2 stars. I have a lot of mixed feelings about The Immortalists. Though there were parts I enjoyed, I was left feeling underwhelmed and like I'd recommend many other similar books before recommending this one.
You should be aware that this is literary fiction and focuses in depth on the lives of four siblings. The enchanting premise that seems to promise elements of magical realism and the fantastical is a little misleading, as there is very little about prophecies and destiny. Though, personally, this didn't bother me so much. I really enjoy reading about families and the dynamics between them, especially when spread over many years, and I found it interesting to explore how each sibling deals with knowing the date of their death.
It begins with the four siblings visiting a psychic as children, near their home in 1960s New York City. This woman tells them - Simon, Klara, Daniel and Varya - the exact date of their deaths. The book then goes on to consider how this information will affect their lives and the way they live them. The sci-fi/fantasy aspects are waved aside quickly. While there are some brief mentions of fate vs. self-fulfilling prophecy, the author never attempts to offer answers.
This is not a problem. My problem is that there are so many books about families with more memorable characters, fewer predictable plot points, and less trite messages. The classic stuff - East of Eden, Roots, Gone with the Wind, The Thorn Birds and The House of the Spirits, and the more recent stuff - Little Fires Everywhere, This is How It Always Is, Sing, Unburied, Sing and Pachinko.
The characters here didn't quite grab me like so many did in the aforementioned books. Some moments that should have been fraught with emotion seemed obvious and manipulative - [spoilers removed] The first two stories - that of Simon and Klara - have very little in the way of family dynamics, as Simon's story mostly consists of dancing in a San Francisco gay bar and meeting his new beau, and Klara's takes her to Vegas to be a magician. Secondary characters roam into these first two perspectives, but none of them make much of an impact.
The second two stories are better. Daniel becomes a doctor in the military and his job leads him to discover something about the psychic who predicted the siblings' deaths. Though my favourite was the last - Varya's. She is now a longevity scientist doing experiments on monkeys. I thought her perspective was well-researched and thought-provoking, and it was easy to imagine someone becoming obsessed with aging when they know their own expiration date.
The writing is just okay, which maybe contributes to making the characters less memorable. Benjamin also occasionally falls prey to the - increasingly more common in modern fiction - random sexual references. This is something that always baffles me and it's not easy to explain because it's not about sex, exactly. It's like there'll be a scene where a character is washing the dishes and the author will suddenly mention his penis hanging limp between his legs. His penis has nothing to do with anything in that scene - the poor dude is just washing some dishes! - and yet, there it is. Here, the author introduces thirteen-year-old Varya by the "dark patch of fur between her legs" in the second sentence of the book. I just... why?
Overall, though, this is a mixed bag of interesting ideas, steps in the right direction that halt too quickly, and a somewhat pedestrian account of the characters' lives. I felt like The Immortalists struggled to live up to its premise.
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This was a Traveling Sisters Group Read, and only two of us were left standing in the Lush Coulee with the rest of the sisters leaving the coulee at or before the first goal of this book. Thank you to Jennifer for reading this one with me, it was a pleasure and I loved the discussion this book brought out.
4.5 stars! This was such a memorable and interesting read that had such a unique storyline with a profound and special message within the pages of this book that had us asking ourselves so many questions!
What if we could find out the date of our death? Would we want to know? Would it change the way that we would live our lives? Is it fate or do we have the ability to change our fate?
Love life for what we have and live it to our greatest potential as if it were our last, as we never know if we are actually living our last day!
THE IMMORTALISTS by CHLOE BENJAMIN is an interesting, entertaining, fascinating, and a different sort of read that had me feeling quite uncomfortable with some of the early scenes but then had me totally engaged and I needed to find out how this story was going to end. I thoroughly enjoyed following along the lives of these four young siblings who find out the date of each of their deaths from a gypsy fortune teller.
CHLOE BENJAMIN delivers a beautifully written, intriguing and captivating story here that was told in all the different perspectives of the four siblings as their date predicted by the fortune teller comes near. My favorite sibling was Klara, and I really loved reading her section and I really enjoyed the magical aspect to her storyline.
I would also like to mention that this book is not going to be for everyone. It's a thought-provoking book with a strong message that is for sure, but there were a couple of explicit sex scenes which I wasn’t quite expecting and the descriptions were a little uncomfortable for me to read. I wish that I would have been forewarned about them so I would have been a little prepared before reading this book.
To sum it all up it was a fast-paced, heartfelt, powerful, thought-provoking, and a deeply moving story that was hard for me to put down. Highly recommended with caution!!!
Publishing Date: January 9, 2018
Thank you so much to Edelweiss, G.P. Putnam’s Sons & Chloe Benjamin for the opportunity to read an advanced copy of this book in exchange for a review!
All of our Traveling Sisters Reviews can be found on our sister blog:
The conceit is fabulous: in 1969, the four Gold siblings visit a fortune teller who bestows upon them the date of their death. Like a stone dropped in a pond, the repercussions reverberate through time and we follow Varya, Daniel, Klara, and Simon across their individual life spans, their choices and actions made in spite of and in defiance of this "foreknowledge". Chloe Benjamin's debut novel The Immortalists juggles many questions - do we create our fates or are we slaves to them, how should and how do we live our lives when faced with certain death, what wonder or magic exists for us when we continually learn and know things that take the mystery away - but at the core are these four siblings, and how they reckon with each other and themselves. This is novel of substance, darkness, a family saga, filled with ideas but nothing explored too heavily as to detract from the narrative.
Most adults claim not to believe in magic, but Klara knows better. Why else would anyone play at permanence - fall in love, have children, buy a house - in the face of all evidence there's no such thing? The trick is not to convert them. The trick is to get them to admit it."
When Klara peels a dollar from inside someone's ear or turns a ball into a lemon, she hopes not to deceive but to impart a different kind of knowledge, an expanded sense of possibility. The point is not to negate reality but to peel back its scrim, revealing reality's peculiarities and contradictions. The very best magic tricks, the kind Klara wants to perform, do not subtract from reality. They add.
Benjamin has a quiet type of prose that sneakily pulls you in, a light touch that somehow fully renders portraits and moments and characters, and the first half of the novel in which the Gold family history and Klara and Simon take center stage is excellent: well-paced, well-plotted, and beautifully told. The complex mix of human frailty and power was fully on display in Simon's portion, and the push to live fully, for and as oneself comes into focus. Klara, the most enigmatic of the siblings, has a unique perspective and position as the titular Immortalist, an amateur magician whose true powers lie in her adept reading of the hearts and minds of others. Simon and Klara are the closest siblings, and their intertwined lives and acceptance of their fates made them extremely compelling to follow.
She had lost parts of herself as she lost her siblings. It was like watching the power incrementally turning off throughout a neighborhood: certain parts of her went dark, then others. Certain modes of bravery- emotional bravery- and desire. The cost of loneliness is high, she knows, but the cost of loss is higher.
The latter half of the book was somewhat less enjoyable, and the intimacy of the earlier storytelling of Klara and Simon was replaced by distance from Daniel and Varya. I believe this distance is intentional and makes thematic sense: if Simon and Klara are the two siblings who confront their mortal foreknowledge head on (perhaps to their detriment, we're left to wonder), Daniel and Varya choose to fight against it, disbelieve, try to ignore the fortune teller's pronouncement, though it insidiously inhabits their life choices and decisions as well. The major flaw for me was feeling disconnected from this portion of the narrative. Even as I can recognize that was likely Benjamin's idea to have the reader in a similar position as the two remaining Gold siblings, somewhat detached and adrift as the fortunes take hold, I did suffer from less interest, enjoyment, and emotional involvement from the reading experience. And yet, Daniel and Varya's bits have great moments, and the conclusion definitely brought the siblings back together, and some of the ideas and issues Benjamin explores are brought full circle.
She knew that stories did have the power to change things: the past and future, even the present. She had been an agnostic since graduate school, but if there was one tenant of Judaism with which she agreed, it was this: the power of words. They weaseled under door cracks and through keyholes. They hooked into individuals and wormed through generations.
Ultimately, this book hooked me and wormed into my heart and mind. I'd give this 3.5 stars rounded up to 4 stars. Chloe Benjamin's debut isn't a perfect novel, but she's a captivating storyteller with a brilliant concept, executed well overall. I really liked The Immortalists and will be even more excited to see what Benjamin writes next. Recommended for literary fiction lovers who don't mind a bit of unevenness, love a fresh voice, and appreciate a good story above all.
-received an ARC, thanks to G.P. Putnam's Sons and Penguin Random House
DNF at 30%
Still need to chew on the rating overnight but this book was at least 4.5 stars! Full review to follow.