Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons
Publication date: January 9th 2018
Chloe Benjamin swings for the fences with the concept of her new novel: how would you live your life if you knew the date of your death? The Immortalists is about four siblings: Varya, Daniel, Klara, and Simon, who visit a psychic when they are children and are, one by one, in private, told the day they’re going to die. They never share these dates with each other, but the impact of the knowledge is the novel’s driving force. As are their choices in dealing with that knowledge.
Benjamin tells the siblings’ stories in a linear fashion beginning in the late 1970s, when Klara and Simon, shortly after their father dies, abruptly move to San Francisco. For Simon, it is the chance to realize what he has always known and embrace his sexuality as a gay man. For Klara, the city is her entry into her own obsession: magic. It is a hard life for both, but they live fully and in the moment. It is the most vibrant time in the novel even if it ends in sadness, when Simon dies at age 20. Klara struggles with his death, wondering if she played any part in it, even as her own career takes off, leading her to Las Vegas. In contrast to their younger siblings, the lives of Varya and Daniel are quieter. They pursue careers in science and medicine, shoulder the responsibility for their mother’s care, and seem to have forgotten what the gypsy told them.
For a novel that cuts to the core of life (when it will end), The Immortalists feels bloodless. The Golds are not a close family and split rather predictably between the wild, younger two and more responsible, older two. After Klara and Simon leave they are never all together again. When they do interact, it is with virtually no insight or understanding to each other. There are secrets and powerful choices throughout the novel, but while I appreciated Benjamin’s prose, it never forged a connection.
At the very least, the premise of The Immortalists makes it a natural for book clubs or any kind of discussion because, just as it goes for the Gold siblings, everyone has a different take on being told when they’ll die. It may be that, given such a momentous theme, I expected too much from the novel. Instead, it left me feeling me feeling empty—not drained, which would be a good thing, but without emotion, unaffected. I was not able to reach into Simon, Klara, Daniel and Varya’s stories nor did they reach out to me.