The Immortalists

The Immortalists: What Would You Do?

It’s the sixties in Manhattan, and the four Gold siblings (Simon, Klara, Daniel, and Varya) head into the cluttered apartment of a Lower East Side psychic. The “Woman on Hester Street” meets with each of the children separately and the result of their individual conversations is terrifying, ridiculous, and all-consuming—she predicts the dates of their deaths. This information creates an interesting premise for author Chloe Benjamin to ponder across 352 pages: Does knowing our expiration dates impact the way we live? Does it encourage behavior and choices that will ensure we fulfill the prophecy or defy it? And do you tell anyone? Benjamin, who’s only twenty-nine, ponders big stuff in this book, which graced the bestseller lists earlier this year.

NOTE: If you are someone who doesn’t read book summaries/descriptions/dustjackets before reading the book, this review will give away too much. If you do, this book review should be fine. There are no spoilers, though there is book-jacket-material.

Lara: Let’s set the stage with an early passage: the Gold children at the door of the psychic’s place.

“Varya holds her breath. There’s a peephole smaller than a pencil eraser. On the other side of the door, a throat is cleared.

‘One at a time,’ the voice says.

Varya catches Daniel’s eye. They have not prepared to separate, but before they can negotiate a bolt is pushed to one side and Klara—what is she thinking?—steps through.

Nobody is sure how long Klara is inside. To Varya, it feels like hours. She sits against the wall with her knees to her chest. She’s thinking of fairytales, witches who take children, witches who eat them. A tree of panic sprouts in her stomach and grows until the door cracks open. Varya scrambles to her feet, but Daniel’s faster. It’s impossible to see inside the apartment, though Varya hears music. A mariachi band? And the clang of a pot on a burner. Before Daniel enters, he looks at Varya and Simon.

‘Don’t worry.’ he says.

But they do.”

Jennifer: Before you go on, just note that there’s mention of a “tree of panic,” and there’s a lovely image of a tree on the original cover. I don’t know if it’s said tree, but it’s interesting.

Lara: Nice observation; I am not sure either. Let’s start with the obvious non-spoiler spoiler. The whole premise of the book is this: Does knowing what day you will die affect how you choose to live? So we know that the Gold children see this psychic and learn their death dates. What we don’t know is when each child is expected die, how they will die, or if they will die during the course of the book. So, is that enough mystery and intrigue to keep readers reading?

Jennifer: Well, it’s funny you should ask . . . I think, lately, the two of us having been—honesty time—clashing, albeit mildly over taste and preference for certain books. This is no original conundrum for readers and reviewers, but there have been a few instances in which we decided not to review something because our tastes were too different.

How is this related to The Immortalists? Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t.

I didn’t care one bit that I knew they were going to die. I read this book entirely to see how the author would philosophically handle the question in the intro: Does knowing our expiration date impact the way we live? So, yeah, I had enough mystery and intrigue.

 So should I ask you this: did she handle it all well?

Lara: I thought she handled these topics very well, and in a way, frankly, that was realistic. Benjamin covers sibling drama, connection, and estrangement within their experiences across four decades—with all of the siblings knowing Varya’s predicted date while the rest kept theirs under wraps.

Do you agree? Who was your favorite character?

Jennifer: Let me note, in response to you, that Varya is, indeed, the only one to share her time of death—and we find out that she’ll live into her late eighties. The others do not share. So, from the beginning, a sense of doom haunts them all.

So do I agree that Benjamin did a good job? In all honestly, I felt like there were some missed opportunities in dealing with profound questions. I mean, theoretically, we all face this same issue; we’re all going to die. But we manage to live as if we were in no immediate danger, nonetheless. Benjamin makes the question more acutely realized. It’s universal. We will die. But how does that knowledge affect every single moment? Benjamin is handling an intriguing idea.

That said, I think only Varya’s “section” (we follow each of the four siblings) was, um, philosophically realized. We didn’t get to see how this prophesy affected their individual thought lives (maybe we can surmise something from how Simon chooses to live his life). I felt like there were opportunities to show how a death sentence might work more complexly on a psyche.

I also wanted Benjamin to do a bit more with the Judaism that runs throughout the book. It’s there, but I felt like there could be stronger connections made because of some of the unique qualities belonging to the Jewish faith and the Jewish people. How might she exploit or thread together this disturbing prophesy with characters who belong to a group who has survived so much in history? Their survival is part of their very character, and I felt like this plot cried out for symbolic connections. Also, how might Benjamin use the beauty of rituals that are so intrinsic to Jewish tradition? There’s a mention, which I quote below, of Varya’s love of routine. Also, she turns out to possess OCD. I longed for symbolic connections. Varya, repeating rituals—stunning rituals, simply to survive. (I don’t know if you read Chaim Potok’s My Name Is Asher Lev, but I kinda wanted that scrutiny, that interweaving, that complexity.)

On a lighter note, I think there was also potential to symbolically use Saul’s pickle fetish. But it didn’t really happen.

My favorite, then, was Varya because she wrestled with the ideas on the page. What about you?

Lara: I think my favorite was Ruby, Klara’s daughter. I can’t really discuss why without giving things away. Klara left the Gold Family, with younger brother Simon in tow, for a career in magic in San Francisco.

“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? The trick is not to convert them. The trick is to get them to admit it.”

She’s scrappy and dedicated, but it’s grueling work. Enter Raj, an Indian mechanic, smitten with Klara and her magic—to the point that he wants to help take her show to the next level. They marry, have a daughter, and achieve moderate success in the Bay Area. But Raj knows that Vegas is where the real money is. We don’t learn much about Ruby until the last third of the book, but it’s her . . . or maybe what she represents . . . that I really enjoyed.

I want to know if you thought the premise—a fortuneteller predicting for children when they would die—works in a literary (or say, non-fantastical) format? Did that work for you?

Jennifer: Yeah, it did. I went with it. (And for our readers: I’d say that this is not magical realism; it’s straight-up literary fiction.) I know that you don’t really love fantasy. Did it work for you?

Lara: It did. I am SOOOOOO glad it was not magical realism—so not my jam. I was a tiny bit worried, but it ended up being good. And that was helped by her writing.

Simon, the youngest Gold, follows Klara to San Francisco, knowing he needs to make the most of his life.

“In New York, he would live for them, but in San Francisco, he could live for himself. And though he does not like to think about it, though he in fact avoids the subject pathologically, he allows himself to think it now: What if the Woman on Hester Street is right, and the next few years are his last? The mere thought turns his life a different color; it makes everything feel urgent, glittering, precious.”

I think my biggest beef is that the span of time didn’t allow equal coverage. We learned the least about Daniel. We met him as a teenager, and then as grown man and military doctor toward the end of his career and life. The jump was a little jarring for me, but not a deal-breaker. Considering how much time we had with each character, it made sense to me that Varya was really the only one to consider the philosophical impact of knowing when she would die. We had the most time with her, and she was predicted to live the longest life.

So, have you ever been to a psychic? If yes, what happened? If not, would you consider going?

Jennifer: Um, you goof. Let me answer you straight-forward, and then discuss the end.

I have never officially been to a psychic, and I never would go see one. It isn’t something I’d mess with.

That said, when I was a kid, I had a Ouija Board experience that was genuine enough. The other participants were legit. Without sharing my question with the others, I had asked if I would have children. Then, in all seriousness, an answer was had: I would have eight kids.

This is BS, as you know.

I have no intention to mess with that stuff again. You?

Lara: It’s total BS. If you’d had eight kids, you wouldn’t have had time to read this book, let alone meet me to discuss it. As for me . . . no Ouija Board experience and I am far too practical a person to go see a psychic. I will let life’s mysteries unfold for me in whatever way they are supposed to, thank you very much.

Jennifer: I do think the end is worth discussing. Varya, the oldest and the only one who knows she’ll live to be old, is very affected by the prophesy. I really did like the ending. In this passage, Luke (introduced late in the narrative) confronts her:

“Because to see you like this breaks my fucking heart. You cleared the decks: you had no husband, no kids. You could have done anything. But you’re just like your monkeys, locked up and underfed. The point is that you have to live a lesser life in order to live a longer one. Don’t you see that? The point is that you’re willing to make that bargain, you have made that bargain, but to what end? At what cost?”

The reference to the monkeys is a reference to her work. She’s a scientist, a researcher, on human longevity (ironically).

Were there any surprises for you here? And didn’t you think the monkey research and Varya’s OCD were a nice touch?

Lara: Klara’s and Daniel’s deaths, or how they died surprised me. I really liked reading about Klara and Raj and then, later, Ruby. Varya, too. It’s a good book. With good, descriptive writing.

Late in the story, Varya gets some shocking news that she is not expecting:

“And the pitch into darkness. At first, she feels confusion.

How? It isn’t possible? I would have known.

Then, the full impact. The flattening. Her vision smears.”

I loved this description of being blindsided by something. I could feel that language.

Jennifer: Okay, so I was thinking that I didn’t really love the book. But then I hit Varya’s section, and I actually really did like that. I liked that monkey business! I loved that her favorite monkey was named Frida, after Frida Kahlo. I like that Kahlo’s work is so bold and sensual, and the monkey in this narrative was pivotal to Varya’s own understanding of her identity—her own awakening of the senses.

Varya, herself undernourished, realizes that her lab monkey is starving and dying. She is a woman who doesn’t like to touch anything, and she rushes to her monkey in this passage – one of my favorites:

“Slowly, slowly, she [Frida] takes the first raisin in her mouth. Varya uses both hands to scoop again. Soon her fingers are covered in flecks of food and flesh, but she continues, reaching now into the bin of coconut, the peanuts, the grapes. ‘Oh, good,’ says Varya; ‘Oh, my baby,’ words she has not used in decades . . .”

I loved this whole thing – Varya’s failure to live despite her lengthy lifespan, her inability to touch anyone, the way this monkey worked on Varya’s consciousness. I loved the way Benjamin made Varya live without living:

“It is impossible to convey the pleasure of routine to someone who does not find routine pleasurable, so Varya does not try. The pleasure is not that of sex or love but of certainty. If she were more religious, and Christian, she could have been a nun: what safety, to know what prayer or chore you’ll be doing in forty years at two o’clock on a Tuesday.”

I did love this idea that living is messy. I think more could’ve been made of so much. But it was good.

Lara: I think we are settling on The Immortalists being worth reading. Check out the Golds – give them a spin – and come back and tell us what you think!

Next Up!

In April we are checking out one of last year’s favorites: A Gentleman In Moscow by Amor Towles.

Until then… Happy reading!


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