Review: ‘The Immortalists’
Though fate propels the plot of Chloe Benjamin’s new novel, The Immortalists, the book brims with magic and life. Its premise is simple: on a muggy summer day in New York’s Lower East Side, four siblings pay a visit to a fortune teller who reveals to each of them the exact date of their death. While the siblings do not share the death date revelation with each other, they nonetheless go on to live very different lives across the next five decades influenced, often driven by, this information. The book begs the question: how would you live if you knew how long you had? Would you want to know?
Benjamin sets only the very beginning of the novel in New York City; you certainly wouldn’t call The Immortalists a New York novel, though the Gold family’s progenitors, Gertie and Saul, are Eastern European Jewish immigrants who have settled there. The narrative structure of the book divides the story into four chronological, sequential sections each following a decade of one of the siblings’ lives. The first part, titled “You’d Dance, Kid,” follows Simon, the youngest sibling, as he moves to San Francisco and becomes a pillar dancer at a club named Purp and then studies in a ballet corps, amidst the burgeoning AIDS crisis. Indeed, the title of his section offers one answer to the novel’s abiding question of how you might live if you knew exactly how limited your time on Earth would be. Simon’s ballet teacher offers this instruction, a passage that captures the novel’s ultimate conundrum: “‘From control,’ he says, ‘comes freedom. From restraint comes flexibility. From the trunk … come the branches.’” This section, fittingly, reads with zestful energy and the pages turn effortlessly.
“Proteus,” the novel’s second act, follows Simon’s next oldest sibling, Klara, who is a student of transformation and a sometime pickpocket, as she pursues a career as a magician, beginning in San Francisco and ending in Las Vegas with her partner, Raj. Klara, deeply affected by Simon’s experience, holds herself mostly apart from her other siblings. She wonders if her influence caused Simon’s troubles, or if, as Simon assures her, it contributed to his fulsome life. Above all, though, she seeks an answer to the finality of death. Introducing Klara to her theater audience before a magic show, Raj remarks, “Life isn’t just about defying death… 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.” Alas, Klara is also unstable. She periodically hears mysterious knocking sounds that she suspects are communications from beyond the grave. She drinks excessively. She needs proof, and this leads to her undoing.
The final two sections follow the eldest Gold siblings, Daniel and Varya, both of whom have dedicated their lives to science. Daniel becomes a military doctor whose job certifying young men for armed service leads to ethical complications for him. Varya heads a primate research project in California whose aim is to study and promote human longevity. Daniel’s section, “The Inquisition,” ties together earlier plot elements and characters and propels the plot forward; however, it also requires the reader to suspend disbelief to a point where the story feels less organic and more contrived. Since Daniel originally had the idea to visit the fortune teller as a child, perhaps more than any other sibling, he bears the greatest burden of guilt. In that context, his confrontation with the Roma fortune teller makes sense. In the moment of crisis, Benjamin tells us, “Simon and Klara were pulled magnetically, unconsciously; Daniel is in full possession of his faculties. Still, the two narratives float like an optical illusion — a vase or two faces? — each as convincing as the other, one perspective sliding out of prominence as soon as he relaxes his hold on it.” A similar dual perception of reality floats throughout the novel as a whole tugging readers from one interpretation to another.
The ultimate section focuses on Varya, the eldest and oldest surviving sibling, and the staid career she’s built working with primates, and one sad specimen in particular, a monkey named Frida, who seems a bit like Varya’s emotional doppelgänger. Varya suffers from a lifetime of repercussions stemming from the childhood fortune teller visit, though her every effort and fiber seems designed to contradict this knowledge. For example, Daniel’s experience leads her to speculate that “his death did not point to the failure of the body. It pointed to the power of the human mind, an entirely different adversary — to the fact that thoughts have wings.” She is determined to conquer death and fate with science and mindfulness, but at what cost? A visitor to her lab sets into motion a revelation that re-orients her entire carefully constructed existence. The novel finally pays off, as Benjamin allows Varya to develop and change and grow, something largely denied the other siblings in their shorter life manifestations. This fits because Varya is graced with the longest predicted life span, an enviable 88 years.
Chloe Benjamin does not, finally, rule on the perplexing questions she raises about fate and self-determination, deed and thought, quality of life versus inevitability of death. Instead, she conjures a tantalizing brew of how these elements work together over the course of different lives and different decades. With its focus on the deep push and pull of sibling dynamics and family legacy, its light overlay of Jewish philosophy and Romani mysticism, its examination of scientific inquiry, and its ultimate focus on what essentially gives life meaning, The Immortalists will surely satisfy a broad swath of book groups and readers whose taste runs toward the plot driven but cerebral story. By turns entertaining and affecting, the pages turn effortlessly, and the whole blossoms into something greater than the sum of its parts.
The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin (G.P. Putnam’s Sons | 9780735213180 | January 9, 2018)