The Immortalists: A Novel
- By Chloe Benjamin
- G.P. Putnam's Sons
- 352 pp.
- Reviewed by Bob Duffy
- January 16, 2018
Does knowing the date of your death make a difference in how you live?
Chloe Benjamin’s second novel unwinds from a meme that could animate a gory horror flick or a midnight college gab session: What if you knew in advance the exact day you would die?
This narrative nugget could break in any number of directions. Benjamin treats it with profound, heart-tugging respect, and gives us a novel crafted with a resonant sensitivity to the lifelong complexities of family relationships.
At the heart of this marvelous novel are four interlocking life histories that unfurl from a single childhood event shared by the central characters. One summer day in 1969, the four siblings of the Gold family, offspring of second-generation Jewish immigrants, set out to consult a psychic living not far from their Lower East Side apartment. The kids are Varya (13), Daniel (11), Klara (9), and Simon (7). Daniel organizes the children’s visit to the supposed oracle, having overheard two other boys talking about the woman’s ability to tell her visitants the day and year when their deaths will come.
The old woman sees each of the kids privately, and each reacts differently to what she tells them. Varya, informed she will live to age 88, dismisses the prediction as trivial, and is the only one to share what she’s learned. The others keep their predicted end-dates to themselves, at least at this moment in the novel. Even so, as their individual stories unfold, each of them ⸺ whether he or she admits to belief in the prophecy or not ⸺ appears to make life choices that take the psychic’s prediction into account.
After her opening-frame section recounting the children’s visit, Benjamin organizes her narrative in four successive segments, each of which tells the unfolding story of a Gold sibling from his or her point-of-view.
Structurally and thematically, The Immortalists brings to mind Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Bridge of San Luis Rey. The Wilder novel opens with five travelers crossing a rope bridge that gives way and plunges them to their deaths. The book then backtracks to tell each of their stories, focusing on the unpredictable intersections of fate, circumstance, and coincidence.
Benjamin skillfully embraces the same themes, but takes something of a reverse angle on Wilder’s premise: She faithfully follows the siblings’ lives after their pivotal moment and, like Schrodinger and his famous cat, shrouds the actual outcome for each youngster in artful uncertainty. Still, like The Bridge of San Luis Rey, The Immortalists is about living under the ultimate specter of death, a premise also shared, and richly so, by Kate Atkinson’s wonderful Life After Life.
Back to the story…or at least as much of it as can be shared without giving too much away.
The two youngest Golds, Simon and Klara, seven years after their fateful audience with the oracle, run away to San Francisco on a bold pilgrimage to shape their futures. Sixteen-year-old Klara dreams of succeeding as a stage magician. Simon, 14, acknowledging his homosexuality, is determined to live true to his nature, which he cannot do at home in New York.
For both teens, this hurried escape into an imagined future may or may not be inspired by the psychic’s prophecies. Just as likely ⸺ and more credibly ⸺ it springs from the streak of stubborn individualism in each of them.
For their part, Varya and Daniel, estranged from their younger siblings, choose more conventional life paths. Varya becomes an experimental biologist; Daniel an Army doctor. A wealth of other characters people the story: among them, Saul and Bertie, the children’s parents; Simon’s lover, Robert; Klara’s stage partner/husband and, ultimately, her daughter, Ruby; Daniel’s wife, Mira; and the Romani fortune-teller herself.
And there’s a persistent San Francisco cop-turned-FBI-agent who wanders in and out of the narrative, the dogged agent of fate or coincidence (take your pick). He directly touches the lives of three of the siblings, with a lasting impact on Daniel’s fate.
In the siblings’ tales, author Benjamin shines a subtle light on the bonds of kinship and familial love, counter-balanced by the freedom, or willingness, to choose one’s own path. The Immortalists is a rich and rewarding novel, sure to rank among the very best of 2018’s crop, and one to be re-read and savored for years to come.
Bob Duffy is a Maryland author and a working consultant in branding and advertising.