“And what if I change?” It seems impossible that Varya’s future is already inside her like an actress just offstage, waiting decades to leave the wings.
“Then you’d be special. ‘Cause most people don’t.”
In 1969 the Gold children visit a fortune teller who can let you know the exact date of your death. While the foursome don’t share their fates with one another the information they receive shapes their futures. Benjamin divides her story into parts based on whose perspective the reader is privy to beginning with Simon, the baby of the family. In the late ’70s, following the untimely death of their father, the Gold children finally discuss this pivotal event from their childhood. Klara is bitter that she was told she would die at 31, Daniel will make it to middle age but not much farther while Varya is told she will live into her 80s. This infuriates her siblings while she downplays it as part of the scam. Only Simon keeps his sentencing a secret.
Their father’s death and their unfavorable fortunes spur Simon and Klara to run away to San Francisco. While Klara has been discussing leaving New York for years Simon, who is in the closet to everyone but his sister, is still a minor and their impetuous move fractures the Gold family and the story begins in earnest.
I think anyone can put “early 1980s” “gay male” and “the Castro” together to get Simon’s fate. His POV is full of explicit details and may turn some people off from finishing the story but it makes sense in the context of the time. Simon confesses to Klara on his deathbed that the fortune teller had been right about his death day and it causes Klara to spiral a bit since they were so close and it means her early demise may prove correct as well. Klara, who is a magician, tries to move forward; she meets Raj and together they begin to flesh out her act but she is haunted by her prophecy.
While their siblings are living their wildest dreams in California, Daniel and Varya stay close to their mother, go to college and then graduate school. Their lives are very different from their younger siblings but equally haunted by their fortunes. Daniel is a doctor for the military and his story is the weakest of the four but helps thread the needle of Benjamin’s narrative. Varya, who suffers from OCD, studies longevity in primates both because of and in spite of her dead brothers and sister.
“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.”
The Immortalists is quite the literary feat. Not only does the story span forty years and four unique personalities but Benjamin must have done an inhuman amount of research to fully capture both the fantastic showmanship of a Vegas magic act as well as what goes into running a research lab devoted to extending life expectancy. Plus everything in between. While there are magical elements to this story it is rooted very much in reality. This story isn’t about the fortunes so much as it is a story about how a fortune can manifest in a young person’s mind and take on a life of its own. Benjamin asks the questions “What would you do with your life if you knew how much time you have?” and “Is our fate out of our hands or can we change our destinies?”