Review: The Immortalists
The Immortalists, Chloe Benjamin
Published January 9, 2018, 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.
I finished this book in one day but was ultimately so emotionally overwhelmed by the time I finished it at nine o'clock at night that I need time to reflect on how to best write about my experience reading it.
First and foremost, the writing is an absolute joy. There are vivid descriptions and such wonderful insights into the characters as they each struggle to find the best way to live their lives, both in the context of what will bring them their greatest joys and how they have come to be afraid of death in ways that maybe other people aren't them aren't. It's the kind of writing the reminds me why I love reading, and why I write.
I enjoyed the structure of the book, meeting the siblings and the woman who tells them the dates of their death, and then a section for each of the four children, cataloging how they are shaped by the potential knowledge of their death, and leading up to the fateful days.
All of the siblings had their own unique wants, passions, and voices, and I appreciated each of the stories, but it was Varya's story that broke my heart the most.
You learn early on that she has been told she will live to be 88- a long life by most standards, and yet it is revealed that she is perhaps the most fearful, the most broken, by loss and the fear of death. It's almost as though because she had time to make mistakes, that she lived the most cautiously of all.
And the inclusion of animal testing and the heartbreaking experience with one of the animals in particular left me weeping on my couch to the point that my cat ran away from my sobs. (Just as a heads up)
I also found it intriguing that Eddie is a character that has some role to play in each of the sibling's stories, without being a member of the family. You expect that Gertie, as the mother, will provide some through line, and she does, but it's Eddie's role shifts and reappears in unexpected ways.
Overall it was a deeply human adventure to read this book, even as it was occasionally populated with ideas of magic.