Title: The Immortalists (2018)
Author: Chloe Benjamin
Page No.: 352 pages
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Price: $15.60 (hardcover)
Genres: fiction; fantasy
The novel opens in 1969 as the four Gold siblings: Varya, thirteen, Daniel, eleven, Klara, nine, and Simon, seven, go to the woman on Hester Street, a spiritual reader who predicts when each child will die. Everyone pretends not to believe in the psychic’s reading, but secretly each sibling remembers his or her death date. The siblings, over the course of their lives, become preoccuped with the best way to live.
Fast forward to 1978, the patriarch Simon Gold dies. Unknowingly, it’s the last time all the siblings are together. At his funeral, the siblings, nearly a decade later, discuss the fortune teller’s predictions for the first time. Simon doesn’t share his date with everyone, only admitting he’ll die very young.
Klara convinces the youngest sibling, Simon, to move with her to San Francisco. There the two of them will live life to the fullest. Simon, a young gay man, is able to live the life of his dreams. He starts taking ballet lessons and falls in love with an older, black man, Robert. They move in together as the AIDS epidemic sweeps the city. Despite warnings from Robert and others, Simon recklessly sleeps with other men believing he’ll die soon anyway. Eventually, Simon contracts HIV and dies in a hospital on his foretold date. He’s twenty years old.
The novel switches to Klara’s perspective. In 1982, Klara is still grieving Simon’s death. She performs magic around San Francisco. She meets Raj, an old acquaintance from when she and Simon first arrived in the city. They fall in love and have a daughter, Ruby. They move to Los Vegas and end up getting an act opening for Siegfried and Roy at the Mirage Casino. Everything is going well, but Klara continues to drink heavily and believes her brother is communicating with her from the dead through a series of knocks. She believes he’s calling her to join him in the afterlife. On New Year’s Day 1991, as the psychic predicted, Klara hangs herself in a hotel room. She’s thirty-two years old.
Next, the novel is told from Daniel’s point of view. It’s Thanksgiving 2006. Daniel is living in Kingston, New York, with his wife, Mira. He works as a doctor at a military recruit processing center. Daniel, pressured by his superiors to inflate numbers, is suspended for his refusal to approve enlistees for duty who don’t meet the requirements. Meanwhile, Eddie O’Donoghue, an FBI agent who’s in love with Klara, contacts Daniel about a case involving the Costellos, one of whom is Bruna Costello the woman who the Gold children saw in their youth. O’Donoghue thinks a case can be made that Klara’s suicide is in part due to Bruna’s predictions. Daniel researches the whereabouts of Costello and tracks down a possible address in West Milton, Ohio.
Daniel emails Raj and invites him and Ruby to Thanksgiving. (Raj and Ruby are now wealthy from their nationally renowned magic act.) He feels a connection with Ruby, who reminds him of Klara. She also wants to be a doctor like Daniel. With Raj, however, he feels a palpable tension. Both Daniel and Raj blame the other for being unable to save Klara.
When Raj and Ruby leave, Daniel, who’s already depressed, finds out from O’Donoghue the case against the Costellos is being dropped. Daniel decides it’ll be symbolically significant to visit Costello on his death date and demand an apology. While Daniel is en route, a concerned Mira contacts to O’Donoghue. Just as Daniel holds Costello at gunpoint, O’Donoghue arrives at the scene and asks Daniel to drop the gun. When Daniel refuses, O’Donoghue shoots him in the leg, accidentally hitting his femoral artery. Daniel bleeds out and dies. He’s forty-eight years old.
Lastly, the narrative shifts to Varya’s perspective. (Varya is predicted to live until her eighties.) It’s 2010 in San Franciso. She’s a biologist, conducting a longevity study on monkeys. One group of monkeys is given a calorie-restricted diet, while the other cohort is not. She hypothesizes that the former group will live longer. Varya’s favorite monkey, Frida, isn’t thriving. Neither is Varya who suffers from untreated anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and grief over the death of her three siblings.
Varya is a misanthrope who has cut herself off from the world. She has very few relationships, with the exception of her mother, Gertie, who’s staying in a nearby retirement home. Even though Varya has outlived her siblings, she’s not living much of a life.
A journalist, Luke, comes to interview Varya about the lab. After a few meetings, Varya discovers Luke isn’t really a reporter, but the son she puts up for adoption while in college. He’s distraught at the emptiness and loneliness of his mother’s life and tells her about the adoptive brother he lost.
Meanwhile, Varya discovers that Frida is in isolation because she was self-mutilating. In an outpouring of emotions, Varya breaks lab protocol by feeding Frida. Subsequently, she is asked to resign from her position as a lab director. The sudden catharsis that follows Varya’s resignation forces her to reevaluate her life.
Varya reconnects with her loved ones. She meets up with Robert, Simon’s lover. He tells her about Simon’s love of life and fearlessness.
At the end of the novel, Varya attends a magic show at Gertie’s retirement home. Ruby, now a medical student at UCLA, does a magic act for all the residents. Surrounded by family and friends, Varya is much less fearful and anxious, even happy.
“In Simon’s voice, he heard the siren song of family – how it pulls you despite all sense; how it forces you to discard your convictions, your righteous selfhood, in favor of profound dependence.”
“They began together: before any of them were people, they were eggs, four out of their mother’s millions. Astonishing, that they could diverge so dramatically in their temperaments, their fatal flaws-like strangers caught for seconds in the same elevator.”
On Female Empowerment
“Klara won’t be a woman who is sawed in half or tied in chains – nor will she be rescued or liberated. She’ll save herself. She’ll be the saw.”
“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?”
On the Power of Words, Storytelling
“But Varya disagreed. She knew that stories did have the power to change things: the past and the 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.
“‘Life isn’t just about defying death,’ Raj says, his voice coming through the speakers on either side of the television. ‘It’s also about defying yourself, about insisting on transformation. As long as you can transform, my friends, you cannot die. What does Clark Kent have in common with the chameleon? Right when they’re on the brink of destruction, they change. Where have they gone? Nowhere we can see. The chameleon has become a branch. Clark Kent has become Superman.
“Perhaps home, like the moon, will follow wherever she goes.”
Worth Staying Up Late For (after the kids have gone to bed?):
- Yes, Stay Up Late!
- Maybe, But See What’s on TV First.
- No, Go to Bed!
Every minute of a mom’s time is “glittering, precious”. I promise you, reading Benjamin’s novel won’t be a waste of your time. After reading the book, I lived my life more deliberately and urgently. I’m sure you will too.
The Stoic philosopher Seneca once wrote, “We are not given a short life but we make it short. Life is long if you know how to use it.”
Would you want to know the date of your death? If you knew your death date, would that change things? Would you live the same way or differently?