It's 1969 in New York City's Lower East Side, and word has spread of the arrival of a mystical woman, a traveling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die. The Gold children -- four adolescents on the cusp of self-awareness -- sneak out to hear their fortunes. Their prophecies inform their next five decades. Golden-boy Simon escapes to the West Coast, searching for love in '80s San Francisco. Dreamy Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician, obsessed with blurring reality and fantasy. Eldest son Daniel seeks security as an army doctor post-9/11, hoping to control fate. Bookish Varya throws herself into longevity research, where she tests the boundary between science and immortality. The Immortalists probes the line between destiny and choice, reality and illusion, this world and the next. It is a deeply moving testament to the power of story, the nature of belief, and the unrelenting pull of familial bonds.
DNF at 28%: Getting through Simon's story took substantial effort and deflated any hope I had of finishing the rest of the book. It was fairly easy to tell the tone and style just through the first story alone. Dark and jagged. It is not for the optimistic, to say the least. Furthermore, it felt jagged in the sense that it feels like it was written with random ideas thrown in and then patched together instead of a smooth plot line. For example, Simon and his very serious boyfriend will be having a serious conversation and then, mid-conversation, Simon has his hands down his boyfriend's pants. His boyfriend is even annoyed by this, as I was as the reader, as it seemed out of place and it happens often. It feels like the author wasn't sure how the characters should handle conflict so she randomly threw in sexual moments that seem out of place. It basically lacked intimacy and fluidity. Along with that is that the story is so choppy that it is hard to feel connected to any of the characters. It felt like the author had a bunch of ideas that she came up with and threw them all in rather than catering the plot to the one or two great ideas. For example: Simon is the oldest, most responsible, supposed to take over the family business, yet runs off to San Francisco, becomes a dancer for a club named Purple (oooooooh what if we have the dancers paint themselves Purple to realllly blend it together?), yet also becomes a polished ballet dancer during the day with his miraculous talent that he only recently started training yet learns quickly and gets a part onstage.
For all of these reasons, I had to put the book down after Simon’s story and move on. I would not recommend this book, clearly. However, I would especially not recommend this book for those readers who may be offended or triggered by explicitly graphic sexual scenarios, foul language, broken families, grief, fortune-telling, death, STDs, runaway teens, or infidelity.
Please note: an electronic Advanced Reader Copy of this book was generously provided through Penguin’s First To Read program in exchange for an honest review.
My Rating: 2/5 stars
**REVIEW IS SPOILERISH**
The Immortalists falls into the category of reads where I find myself questioning whether I liked the read or not. The only way to sort out the answer is with a list of likes and dislikes.
I like the premise of this read, the idea of the power of suggestion and how it impacts a person throughout his or her life. In this instance, four children, at far to young an age, were told by a gypsy woman the dates of each of their respective deaths which in turn wreaks havoc on their lives from that moment forward. As the children grow into adults, each tries, without much success to forge a path, a life out from under the shadow of a death date.
Unfortunately, the promise of the premise utterly fell apart as the story unfolded. From the moment the children discover their respective death dates, each travel along a collision course headlong toward what becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. For a time, each of the four siblings find a small measure of happiness – Simon in his dancing and relationship, Klara in her daughter, Daniel in his ability to help others, and Varya in her work – but, it isn’t enough, in the end, to sustain any of them.
The book is broken into four sections, one for each of the siblings and each is sadder, more pathetic than the last. Simon is very much a product of his time and place, Klara is a product of undiagnosed/untreated mental illness, Daniel is a victim of his own obsession, and Varya, well, I’m still not sure what went sideways with her. Ultimately, each of siblings feels helpless in the face of a death sentence and rather than fight, they give in to what they each clearly see as the inevitable. This giving up, the sense of doom and inevitability is the root of my displeasure with this book. None of these siblings ever reached out to anyone for help, sought to help one another, and no one in their lives, apparently, cared enough to encourage them to seek help. Furthermore, each sibling is so caught up in his or her own life and BS, weighed down by old hurts and betrayals, they can’t see a life beyond what they feel is a fixed moment in time. To this end, each, even when in a relationship, becomes so isolated as to become quite hopeless. From page one, it is clear this read there is going to be nothing but waste, waste of talents and more importantly, a waste of lives.
The Bottom Line: The Immortalists is one of those reads I fully expected to like and found very much lacking in the end. In the end, I was very much disappointed by the characters in this book, literally every one of them. All the siblings, all four of them had every opportunity to help themselves and one another yet, none of them took such steps and/or measures. In large part, I stuck with this book because I kept hoping someone would finally pull their head and do the right thing. Though one of the siblings does end up living, it isn’t much of a life and it’s filled with the guilt of knowing how little help was offered and/or given to her siblings. In the end, I found this book tragic in the worst sense possible as well as frustrating beyond belief.
I really liked the idea behind this book. It was intriguing and thought-provoking. After all, if you knew the date in which you were going to die, would it change the way you lived? Maybe, maybe not. But I really felt like the story was missing something. It had so much potential. I could just imagine the amount of angst one might feel if they knew their death day was soon approaching. But I never felt like any of the characters in this book exhibited that type of angst. Yes, it was interesting to see how each sibling lived their life differently from one another, but I'm not convinced that their life choices were influenced by the knowledge they received at a younger age. The story itself was decent, but I really thought it could've been so much more than it was.
Benjamin chooses to tell the siblings' stories consecutively, in order of their death, which took a lot of the suspense out of the question of whether the prophecies were ultimately true, leading me to understand that the driving questions of this book is actually, "Does knowing the date of your death become a self-fulfilling prophecy?" Benjamin seems to take it for granted that we can accept the legitimacy of the prophecy but is so heavy-handed in answering the question of self-fulfillment that the stories of what happen to the siblings seems very shallow.
The novel received a lot of attention and was highly acclaimed before being published. What starts as a story about four kids and a strange prediction, turns into one of the best novels of the last years. After the opening scene, Chloe Benjamin tells the siblings‘ stories, starting with the youngest who is predicted to die first. Each has a singular life, an interesting character and their story blends perfectly with societal developments of their times. Not only a cleverly constructed plot, but also relevant questions about what is important in life, how much do family bonds count and how free are you in shaping your life -and what is determined by fate?
You always wait in a story staring with the presentation of a group of characters for who will turn out to be the most intriguing, the most interesting and the one with the biggest crisis. Benjamin treats the four kids equally. Astonishingly, the moment when each is taking over, he or she becomes really the centre, the focus of everything. Thus, we do not get the development if the others which makes a lot of secrets revealed only later as well as many situations being judged from one perspective when there are actually several points of view which allow you to see a situation also in a completely different way.
The story is often sad, full of despair and emotion. It is hard to say how Benjamin makes you completely indulge in it, but you feel with the characters, you can sense their loss and thus get a wonderful novel to read. Exceptional writing paired with a cleverly constructed novel, carefully drawn characters and the smooth insertion of important topics – is there anything more a reader could wish for?
When the book begins, in 1969, the Gold children decide to visit a fortune teller named Bruna Costello, a Romani gypsy who could tell those who consulted her the date of their deaths. At the time, Varya was 13, Daniel was 11, Klara was 9 and Simon was 7. The lives of the four would be forever impacted by this knowledge and experience. Three were told they would die young, while the fourth would live deep into her eighties. Each of the siblings pretended that the knowledge was ridiculous, when confronted, but as they grew up, they began to think more and more about their impending demise, and they made decisions based on that knowledge, thinking it just might be true. Would their choices propel them in the direction of their deaths, or would they die at the predicted time, regardless?
The book covers almost half a century as it travels down the lives of each of the children, ending with the explanation of Varya’s ongoing life in 2010. The characters are well developed with all of the idiosyncrasies “that flesh is heir to”. Each of them suffered from some disability or deviance which caused a problem during the time in which they grew up. Simon was gay, Varya had OCD, Daniel was overly regimented and organized, and Klara saw the world as her play gym. Their mother was portrayed as a typically complaining, stereotypical Jewish mother who instilled guilt at every opportunity. The father, a tailor, was the more stable, emotionally, and the more accepting of the pair. Both had suffered a huge loss of family members during the Holocaust and were grateful for being in America.
As the three generations of Golds were explored, through their relationships or lack thereof, some of the major issues of the times were also introduced through them. With the parents it was the Holocaust, with the children it was homosexuality and civil rights, with the grandchildren it was environmental issues and women’s rights. The book introduced racism and anti-Semitism, mental illness and environmental issues with animal cruelty taking the center stage. The Castro in San Francisco, which was a well known gay area, coupled with the murder of Harvey Milk, became almost a character in the book as homosexuality was explored in great detail. Because of several interracial couplings, the issues of racism and civil rights were also featured. Mental illness and anti-Semitism were far less developed, but family dynamics was explored fairly well. Overall, did the idea of their deaths hanging over them affect the choices they made, bringing about a self-fulfilling prophecy, or did everything simply go according to plan.
I was not that pleased with the portrayal of the Jewish family and was not quite sure why a Jewish family was chosen to display so many negative aspects of life, unless it was simply because it began on the Lower East Side of Manhattan which was largely populated by Jews at one time, mostly early in the first half of the century. Each of the characters introduced seemed to be selfish and was negatively described until almost the end when some redeeming features were reviewed. Some of the more negative characteristics were selfishness, alcohol consumption, suicide, murder, mental illness, single motherhood, sexual deviance, racism, coldness, a lack of compassion, abortion, and generally cruel or nasty behavior toward one another, making sure to point out their faults rather than their positive qualities, discouraging their efforts rather than praising them.
In some ways I feel as if the publishing industry is pushing the agenda of the far left in most of the books chosen recently, and I found the issues somewhat contrived.
And from there we follow each of the kids' lives. How accurate was the pyschic? How does her prediction affect each of the kids in their life choices and career decisions? The 4 kids live very different lives in their daring, their career and educational choices--how much of that is a result of the predictions? Did the psychic (accidentally or otherwise) steer them to decisions that would lead to the intended outcomes? Or is fate just fate?
This book is very well written and well organized. I love family sagas and I love novels that follow people as this one does—and sometimes such novels get messy and confusing. Benjamin has done a great job telling the stories of the 4 kids while interweaving them and those of Saul and Gertie and significant others and their kids. She also ties up the potential loose ends of significant others and children.
A pleasure to read.
THE IMMORTALISTS follows four children throughout their lives. The children visit a woman who tells them their death date. That knowledge compels each of the young people to follow a different pathway through life. A gay boy who is uncertain of his sexuality and self-worth, a girl who may be suffering from a mental illness and infatuated by magic, a girl who is intellectually brilliant but socially inept and a boy who is the family’s “golden child” intent on doing everything perfectly make up this group of siblings.
Each one’s story is told in succession with little interaction between the siblings until each one’s death. Each story is compelling on its own. The characters are well developed. Each life story has a clear beginning, middle and end. The place and time each sibling’s story covers is detailed and distinct.
An intriguing, well written, and aware novel delineating the difference between belief and science, reality and fantasy. The choices each sibling makes will resonate long after you finish reading.
5 of 5 stars
This book had a intriguing start - four siblings in 1960s New York City visit an old Gypsy fortune teller and are told the dates of their eventual deaths. As the years go by, one by one the siblings pass on the days foretold by the old woman. Questions about the inevitability of their fates haunt the siblings, as they struggle with living their lives and preparing for what they believe might cause their ends. An interesting read, filled with complex family dynamics and intriguing questions.
Fast forward to early adulthood. Their father drops dead on a city street and they all come back home for his funeral.
College awaits the eldest 2 and they leave again to continue. Simon, the youngest at 16, busses out to San Francisco with his sister Klara, and quickly finds a job as a dancer in a gay bar and himself in the burgeoning gay scene.
It is the era of Harvey Milk. It is the onset of aids.
Klara, seeking magic since childhood, perfects her acts, performing in nightclubs as she finds them. She marries, has a daughter, succumbs.
Daniel, the rock of the family, is a doctor. He marries. He lives his life. Until the seer is brought again into focus.
Varya, given the promise of longevity, deals. Remaining when so much is taken is hard. She has issues. She has secrets. She has to find her own escape.
Strong bonds between the family effect them each. One wonders, as we should..were the prophecies true or merely caused? Each, of their own, told. Each felt. In the end, there is.....
A.J. Finn's The Woman in the Window was also on that list and it shot to the top of the bestseller list when it published last week. (My review is here.)
A third book at that presentation was Chloe Benjamin's novel The Immortalists. It asks the question "if you knew the exact date of your death, how would you live your life?" Four young siblings find out that a psychic lives near them, and for a price she will tell you the date of your death.
The year is 1969, and the country is in turmoil as Varya, Daniel, Klara and Simon pay her a visit and one by one learn of their fateful date. The three oldest share their dates with each other, but the youngest, Simon, keeps his information to himself.
Years later Daniel is at college studying to be a doctor, and Varya is also away at school with dreams of a medical career when a family tragedy brings them home. Klara has always been the flighty one, and Simon has been the dependable one, the one who is being groomed to take over the family tailoring business.
Each sibling gets to narrate their own story. Simon chafes at his destiny of being trapped in the family business. When Klara decides to go west to San Francisco to become a magician, she convinces Simon to come with her, and that is where his story begins.
Simon finds his true self among the San Francisco scene and it was his story that moved me the most. His search for his authentic identity and for love is so emotional, it draws the reader in.
Klara's dreams take longer to come true. She works dead-end jobs while she perfects her magician craft. Her story and Simon's intersect for many years, until Klara's struggle to make it as a magician and her own love life take her on the road.
Klara's story has a bit of a mystical touch to it, and I found the denouement of her story the most troubling.
Daniel gets to be a doctor. He works for the government as an army doctor, certifying young men as healthy for military duty. Could his career choice be a result of the psychic's words, an attempt to influence someone's else's fate?
Varya stayed at home to care for their mother, giving up her dreams of being a doctor. She is resentful that Simon escaped while she carried the burden for all of her siblings.
She eventually ends up working in medical research, working with research animals to discover why some people live longer than others.
All of the Gold children's lives as adults seemed to be influenced by what the psychic told them. Their mother said something that is prescient of the future:
"Nobody picks their life, I sure didn't." Gertie laughs, a scrape. "Here's what happens: you make choices and then they make choices. Your choices make choices."
The Gold children made choices, some based on their experience with the psychic. Did her predictions make choices for them?
After reading the engrossing, brilliant The Immortalists, you can't help but ask the question of yourself- if you knew the date you were going to die, how would you live your life? You'll be pondering that long after the book ends, and isn't that the sign of the good book- one that makes you think?
The lives of each of the four children is then told, from the youngest, Simon, to middle sister Klara. They escape their smothering mother (Jewish, of course) by fleeing to San Francisco just as the hippies are departing and AIDS is in the wings. Elder brother Daniel and elder sister Varya remain in New York. Although 3 of the 4 life stories are not predictable, two of the deaths are very contrived. The final chapter, Varya's, is the only one that shines, and it's pretty much too late to salvage the book. What a shondel (shame), the mother would say, and I do too.
The Immortalists is about a Jewish family where the four siblings go to see a fortune teller to learn the date of their death. Then the book fast forwards to their adulthood and how they are affected by the fortune. It reads like 4 slightly intertwined stories. At the beginning of the book I said I would definitely want to know the date...maybe not after reading this.
Chloe did a lot of research into the places (lower east side New York, San Fran, Vegas) and what they would look like in the years the characters lived there.
Oh and also, Chloe is a knitter. Multiple patterns have been created based off of her vibrant book cover. It makes me want to unpack my needles and yarn
The thing is, The Immortalists is a well-written novel. The Gold children each deal with the knowledge of their death date in different ways, with a wide variety of success and tragedy. Simon’s story is particularly poignant and inspiring. No matter how you react to each of the siblings, however, Ms. Benjamin gets you to react. You care enough to feel for these four children and the lives they lead. Their deaths, while not unexpected, are still tragic in the fact that they happen if not how. You want the psychic to be wrong and hope the kids can beat back any demons that haunt them. It is an emotional novel that questions the idea of fate versus choice.
In spite of all that emotional goodness, I am left feeling rather unsatisfied. One could debate for days whether each of the siblings would have acted in the same way had they never learned about their death date and therefore knowing this information contributed to their demise. It makes for a fascinating but ultimately unsatisfactory discussion because there are no definitive answers to either point. Regardless if there was, this is not the point of the story. The story is about family and about living a genuine life. The thing is that no one really learns these lessons. The siblings part ways early on in the novel and remain apart from one another if not completely estranged in some form. As for living a genuine life, well, that too may be up for debate. This all makes me question whether the learning lessons are more for readers rather than the characters, which I find somewhat disappointing. The Immortalists then becomes a 352-page lecture, albeit a well-told one.
I suspect my feelings about The Immortalists would be different had I not read Adam Silver’s latest masterpiece a few short months ago. In his story, the focus is two characters and one day, allowing readers a greater opportunity to get to know them and to experience their last day alongside them. Ms. Benjamin has us as silent witnesses versus silent participants. Not only that but by keeping the focus to one day, we see the difference it makes when one truly lives their life without fear and without worry. Ms. Benjamin’s version, by occurring over five decades, makes this more nebulous, and we don’t necessarily see the Gold siblings living without fear or worry. We see them, for the most part, as adults worried about the same things as every other adult.
For me, The Immortalists is good but it cannot be as good as Adam Silvera’s novel. This is not only because I read it first but also because I remain more impressed with how he told his story, with his characterization, and the method by which he laid out his theme. Ms. Benjamin’s novel suffers from uneven characters, a theme which makes no sense in the context of the story, and from the feeling of repetitiveness that comes with having recently read a more impressive and memorable similar story.
Thank you so much to BookishFirst for providing a copy of this book to read. I know we're only a small ways into 2018 but this was my most anticipated novel for the year.
I'm giving this a 4.5, rounded up to 5, because it's true, I didn't LOVE this, but I sure did like it. A lot.
I think the premise is incredibly original (to me, anyway, I've never read anything like this story). Four siblings find out the date they're going to die from a so-called fortune teller. What follows is the stories of the lives of those four siblings, having each been deeply affected by what they're told. The Gold siblings, none of whom I felt much attachment to, are what I think makes this a 'really like' instead of 'love' rating for me. I felt no connection to Varya, Daniel, Klara or Simon. Not the fact that they were Jewish. I'm Jewish. Not the fact that Varya went to NYU. I went to NYU. Still, no feeling of kinship between the Gold siblings and me. I didn't grow to care for them, though I indeed empathized with them. None of them came off as three-dimensional to me, even though they were each given enough page-time to have their characters developed. I don't know, I just didn't find any of them particularly likable.
Chloe Benjamin's knack for storytelling is really marvelous. She has a true gift for writing and is a spectacular talent. The hype for her novel and the attention she is garnering is well-deserved in my opinion. It's incredible the way she created four siblings, each so drastically different from the other, each with an incredibly original, well-executed story. For me, none of their stories were predictable. I read a few reviews on here where the reviewers say they weren't surprised by any of it. How? I'm really not sure how that's possible, but okay. Because I don't want to write any spoilers, I won't say why I think it's not plausible that people could have guessed the outcomes.
What I also loved was waaaaaaaaaait for it.................THE REALISTIC CONVERSATIONS BETWEEN THE CHARACTERS. I mean it. If you write a book with real human being words that are used by real human beings, chances are I'm going to rate your book highly. Thank you, Ms. Benjamin. I literally felt the tension between Raj and Daniel during Thanksgiving. That was REAL. It reminded me of my own family's Thanksgiving of 2016. Real arguments. Real words flying that you don't mean but say anyway because you're fired up. YES. Real conversation in books. This is what I love.
But also, how gorgeous is that cover?
I was very impressed with three of the four characters ... pretty good odds. Impressive, clever, well-crafted ... I'm one satisfied reader.
alerts readers to the potential of human to animal immortality. But no.
Instead, the Gold family offers a good father and a barely endurable mother.
Led by younger brother Daniel, Varya and younger siblings, Simon and Klara, sneak away to find
a women who allegedly can predict the date of a person's death. Readers have time to ponder
whether they also would want this maybe certain and maybe devastating knowledge. The woman
meets with each child one by one and they instantly change: Daniel now steely and angry, Klara sad
and crying, Simon sad, furious and rebelling, Varya still mistrustful, but happy to have the promised 88 year life.
At this point, the plot was so mesmerizing that I went back to read the Prologue again to be sure that
nothing was missed. Suspense mounts as Simon nears his death date. By this time, he and Karla have
secretly moved to San Francisco's Castro District of the 1960s where he has quickly enjoyed all the gay life
handed to a new young man. Unfortunately, he also shows little character as he takes unprotected chances
on getting the new 'Gay Disease.' He chooses not to tell his loyal and loving partner, Robert, of this decision
to take a chance on killing them both. Offering his lover a choice would have been the fair and decent option.
Karla seems not at all concerned when her brother turns into a passive murderer.
Readers not turned off by his actions and intrigued by magic acts, Las Vegas cruelty to tigers, and Karla's
incessant circus performances of The Jaws of Life may wonder about Fate vs Self-fulfilling Prophecy as she
takes her own life on her preordained death day. Why did she choose to punish her husband and child rather
than to wait and see what the night would bring? Her path was way too predictable and selfish given her
obsession with her grandmother's death and Simon's knocking from the great beyond.
As if three suicides, by risk, by hand, and the truly improbable, by cop, weren't enough to overflow a plot,
readers are next subjected to the bristling horror of an Animal Experimentation Lab. They may wish that
Varya had defeated the prophecy and killed herself BEFORE setting up yet another unneeded cruel experiment
to destroy Frieda's existence. Depriving animals of their real life in a pitiful human quest for more spurious
data yields nothing but more people with no character, including her son Luke who should have gone directly
to PETA. Still more horrifying, neither he nor Varya do ANYTHING to save Frieda from more pain.
Hal and the entire University of Wisconsin Primate Lab would be proud.
I obviously felt no connection nor cared about the fates of any of the main characters and only rarely
the minor ones - Ruby, Raj, Eddie, and, of course, Robert.
No amount of good parenting (poor Gertie, the hounds of Hell were on her ass -- all goodness and still she was the Forest Gump of 20th Century horrors, everyone around her falling like flies so she could be connected to genocide, mental illness, AIDs, coronary artery disease), or education, or rational thought can change our destinies, that is the message. The reviews all focus on "what if you knew the date you were going to die, how would that change you?" That is not the story at all. Simply knowing the date of death is not the boogeyman here, it is the immovable hand of destiny. If this was set in a different time, a person could protect himself from contracting AIDS, but in the late 70's and early 80's there was nothing to protect against, no identified disease, and no connection to specific activity. This is not a message of behavior compelled by the belief that it was time to die, it was something there was at the time no way to guard against. This isn't a self-fulfilling prophecy, it is "destiny is gonna get you." I won't go into each individual character, but I could. Rather I will just say that the premise that those who know they are going to die soon embrace the inevitable is far from a universal truth, and those with a long life life ahead live in fear of death also is nothing close to automatic. Instead of analyzing each poorly-drawn character I will go to how lazy and clunky a structure Benjamin uses.
By focusing on single characters Benjamin does not have to figure out how families interact as a unit. Family interaction is incredibly complicated, maybe the hardest thing to write about. Benjamin just decided to not do it. Instead we have Klara and Simon interacting in their bubble, and it is like the rest of the family doesn't exist at all. We have Daniel and Klara's husband interacting. Again, largely alone though Gertie and Klara's daughter have some minor role. We have Varya and Gertie together in the last chapter. I had mostly forgotten Varya existed by the time I got to her story. At the end, I have no idea how anyone felt about anyone else, how their love or hate or indifference toward one another influenced their lives. That includes mama Gertie, who is pretty darn sanguine about her sea of dead children.
I thought I was going to jump ship on this book after the first 100 pages, and then the narrative changed from a nostalgic romp through lower East Side NYC in the early 70's (a boring joyless romp) to the colorful late 70's Castro, and I thought it was worth trudging on. So trudge I did. My time and fortitude were not rewarded. (Also, the Ruby and Luke "I believe the children are our future" ending was just off-putting. Did the editor tell Benjamin she needed to end on a hopeful note? Because nothing in the book indicated that was the way to go.) I am reading another book right now which is not great (book club mandate), so we will hope the one after that rewards me.