Benjamin, Chloe. “The Immortalists”, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2018.
A Family Story
If Chloe Benjamin’s “The Immortalists” had a subtitle it would be, “If you knew the date of your death, how would you live your life?” Here is a family saga that spans fifty years and begins in 1969 on New York City’s Lower East Side with the news that a mystical woman, a traveling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die has come to town. The Gold children, four adolescents sneak out to hear their fortunes. What they learns charts the next fifty years of their lives. “The Immortalists” is a novel that examines destiny and choice, reality and illusion, this world and the next in a powerful story about how and what we believe and family.
We begin when Varya is 13, Daniel is 11, Klara is 9 and Simon is 7. They come from a religious Jewish family and they are close to both mother and father. Anxious to hear the psychic, they each meet with her individually and she tells them each the day they will die. At first, we do not know whether or not they shared this information with each other. We know that some of the kids are upset, in particular young Simon, but even Klara and Daniel seem shaken. Varya, however, has been told she will have a very long life.
Each of four sections follows the life of one of the children. We learn what happens to each and whether or not the psychic was right about the date of their death. Gradually we learn what each of the children were told and how the prophecy affected their lives.
WE explore how the knowledge and/or the fear of one’s date of death can affect how one lives their life and whether this knowledge becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy or whether it can easily be changed by one’s own choices and free-will.
Each section poses different answers to the question of whether or not it’s better to know when our lives will end and just what consequences could follow. Be prepared to clear a large block of time because once you begin reading, you will not be able to stop.
I found myself recognizing parts of my own life in the lives of the siblings especially when we see that as they grow and mature, they decide to either stay close to New York and their Jewish roots or get as far away from home as quickly as they can. We find ourselves caring about the characters and writer Benjamin has the ability to bring places to life through her descriptions. Theirs is both sadness and love in “The Immortalists” just as there is in life. We see the opposing factors counterbalances by their opposites in the children’s mother Gertie who is both their strength and their nemesis in the same way their Jewish heritage comforts and repels them. The kids remain connected between when they seem to be hating and criticizing one another.
We all intellectually understand that that death is an inevitable fact of life but how does knowing the exact date death influence the way we make life choices? Is knowing when we die a blessing or a curse? Does it influence religious/spiritual beliefs? Does the date indicate predestination or a self-fulfilling prophecy? These questions are present throughout the read. The impact of this knowledge is seen as each sibling approaches the predicted date of death. With the exception of one of them, they never discuss this among themselves. In fact, they seem to grow more distant emotionally and physically with each passing year, yet they are all acutely aware of the prophecy that binds them together.
We read of the four lives from 1978 to 2010 during which various relevant social issues are introduced including the start of the AIDS epidemic, the war in Afghanistan and animal research. Even though the characters are not always admirable or likeable (who is?), they are always relatable.
The prophecies inform their next five decades. Simon escapes to the West Coast and searches for love in ’80s San Francisco; Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician and is obsessed with blurring reality and fantasy; Daniel seeks security as an army doctor post-9/11; and Varya throws herself into longevity research, where she tests the boundary between science and immortality.
There is suspense that comes from the characters as we examine issues of mortality and immortality, destiny and self-determination, magic and science, and the past and the future.