Book Review: The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin introduces the four Gold siblings as they dance on the edge of reality when they visit a rumored fortune-teller who can predict the dates of their deaths. Each sibling must visit the woman alone, choosing only after to share with the others her prediction. As they grow, the secret of her telling will influence them in ways they have yet to understand. Benjamin has created a moving narrative that expertly examines the myriad ways in which our past and our beliefs influence our choices.

So this is how it started: as a secret, a challenge, a fire escape they used to dodge the hulking mass of their mother, who demanded that they hang laundry or get the goddamn cat out of the stovepipe whenever she found them lounging in the bunk room.

The individual narratives of each Gold sibling are told, in ascending birth order, against the backdrop of influential segments of American history. We learn to appreciate the unique lives each one leads while still remaining connected to their family- though in some cases only by degrees.

Simon, the youngest, finds himself engulfed by the sweat and lust of San Francisco where he is finally able to exist as a gay man. He works for a nightclub and eventually as a ballet dancer where his life is reflected like a prism—each angle bring something beautiful and unexpected though ultimately fragile. Having traveled on a whim to San Francisco with his closest sibling Klara, we next learn about her journey.

In the early days of reconnaissance about the famed fortune-teller, Klara discovers a book of magic and is excited by its mystery and subterfuge. Her exceptional talent brings her across the United States where she hustles everyday with her husband and daughter to share her brand of magic with the world while simultaneously fighting against losing herself in the process. The very requirement of a magician to toe the line between truthfulness and falsehood muddles her spirit and exacerbates her emotional torment.

Daniel is the next eldest Gold and second only in his pragmatism to his older sister Varya. His life is dictated by the routine and control of the Army—something he craved following the death of his father and the abandonment he felt when his two younger siblings absconded to California. When his performance as an Army doctor in charge of medical readiness exams is questioned, for reasons subtly rooted in fraud, the careful balance he cultivated shifts and his world spirals out of control.

Varya appears to be the only Gold sibling who is remotely comforted by the fortune-teller’s prediction. Nonetheless, she devotes her life to longevity research through caloric restriction in primates. This restriction emulates her own existence and, like her brother Daniel, she has compartmentalized her life to near sterile proportions. Her narrative serves as the capstone of the novel, summarizing how varying degrees of the presence or absence of control can dictate a persons well-being—but can it preserve their life?

She feared that fate was fixed, but she hoped-God, she hoped-that it was not too late for life to surprise her. She hoped it was not too late for her to surprise herself.

The Immortalists is at first glance a family saga, but as the pages turn is quickly becomes clear that it is also a meditation on the emotional fragility of the individual. Benjamin’s imagination shines, as well as her deft control of the individuality of characters she has wrought. There is something here for everyone, which can be found at times in the most surprising of places.

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A review copy of this title was provided by G.P. Putnam and sons.

 

 

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