When they were young, Varya, Daniel, Klara, and Simon Gold visited a neighborhood fortune teller who told each of them the day they would die. Perhaps if they had talked about it that day, they could have laughed it off and let it be part of the silliness and credulity of childhood, but they did not talk. Instead, they walked home, holding their fate in their minds and letting it gain power over their choices and their lives.
There is the youngest, Simon, who abandons the family’s plans for him and goes to the Castro, becomes a dancer, falls in love, and is one of the early casualties of the AIDS epidemic, dying young on the day the fortune-teller told him he would. Then Klara, the closest to him in age and inclination, who took him with her while she sought a future as a magician, finding love and motherhood, before forcing the prophecy to come true. She never would have encouraged him if she didn’t believe he would die young. Daniel, the older son, sober and responsible, comes unmoored when his day approaches, bringing on his own tragic end by letting anger and guilt overwhelm his normally sober nature. Varya, the oldest, the one whose death may be a long way off (2044) is the survivor, but she survives through circumscribing her life, by cutting herself off from truly living. She thinks she finds joy in order and routine but is satisfaction and comfort really joy?
On the marketing materials for Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists, we are asked what we would do if we knew the day we were going to die. I guess that is one way of looking at this novel built on the narratives of these four siblings, told in the order of their deaths–the reverse order of their births. But there is so much more to this novel than that.
It asks us what matters most, the quality or the quantity of our days. Is Simon’s short, but exuberant and love-rich life more tragic than Varya’s long and limited life of denial? Is it fate and magic at work or self-fulfilling obsession? Are they making the prophecy come true? And what if these four wonderful characters had ever just talked to each other? Really talked to each other without defensiveness and judgment. Did they meet their fated days because of some magical knowledge on the part of the fortune-teller or because of a conspiracy of silence that kept them from challenging her timeline? So much of what makes love work is communication and this family does not communicate. That is sad because they all have so much to say.
This is a story about superstition, religion, and reason. It is a struggle between tradition and modernism, between ritual and freedom. This book is rich in thematic ideas about the biggest questions that plague us. I love their mother, the very superstitious Gertie, who, when finally told of this “curse” on her family, asks “After everything I gave you: education, opportunity – modernity! How could you turn out like me?”
This is a story about family, about love that binds us even when we don’t get along. More than anything, this is about love and finding it in expected and unexpected places, about second chances and lost chances and no chances. I find it hard to describe the fullness of the book because there is so much it asks us to think about. And yet, and this is important. This is not a preachy, dogmatic book. It forces the questions, but does not answer many of them…that is up to us.
Many books will break your heart. A few will break it and mend it. Only the most precious can break and mend your heart again and again. If the mended are truly stronger, reading The Immortalists. will make you invincible.
I received an e-galley of The Immortalists from the publisher through NetGalley and Edelweiss.