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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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.
See my exclusive interview with Chloe Benjamin about her novel The Immortalists here!
“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 ****
*I received a copy of this novel from the publisher, G.P. Putnam's Sons, via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.
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Exclusive CHLOE BENJAMIN INTERVIEW: Magic Meets Humanity, Resilience Meets Reality – Chloe Benjamin Tackles the Ultimate Life Question: How We Handle Mortality
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:
Chloe Benjamin's epic The Immortalists has us considering some of the most fundamental and complex questions about life and how we live it. It is thought provoking as it asks does knowledge of our mortality make us live our life to the utmost or makes us fearful, guilty, and seek to outwit death? It is 1969 and in Manhattan, New York, the 4 Jewish Gold children seek a light hearted encounter with a gypsy psychic, who tells each of them their prophecies and their date of death. They cannot break free of this knowledge which shapes their futures for the following five decades. This is a story of family, loss, secrets, regrets, sibling relationships, death and above all else, about life.
The lives of each of the children is followed to the last moments in their lives. Klara and Simon are close as siblings, Simon cannot wait to leave home, this culminates in the two of them escaping to San Francisco. The prophecies determine that they live life to the max and at the edge. The gay Simon embarks on a search for love, plunging into life with abandon, displaying a reckless disregard for his own safety in his actions, ignoring all warnings. Klara pursues her obsession for magic, ignited by her grandmother, as she becomes a magician, The Immortalist, playing with ideas of reality. Daniel and Varya are resentful at how they have been left behind with their mother. Daniel becomes a miitary medic whilst Varya seeks the answers to living longer as a researcher. Their lives are considerably more stable but more strewn with guilt and fear.
Benjamin writes in beautiful vibrant prose, creating a compelling and philosophical narrative that draws in the reader effortlessly. The debate as to whether our lives can be foretold, our destiny written in the stars, or can we be architects of our future, determining the paths we choose to take, is the raison d'etre for this novel. Do we burn brightly in the lives we live in the full knowledge we are going to die, or do we allow ourselves to fall prey to our insecurities, guilt, and fear as the consequent possibilities that life offers shrink? There are the inevitable questions of how this has an impact on how religion and country can come to be viewed. This is a profoundly moving book, although uneven on occasion, with disturbed and complicated characters pushed into confronting their mortality from a young age. I much preferred Simon and Klara to Daniel and Varya as they exuded a greater hold on my imagination. This is a perfect read for those wanting to explore ideas and concepts through a fascinating and memorable collection of siblings living through a significant and turbulent period of history. Highly recommended! Many thanks to Headline for an ARC.