It’s the middle of summer in 1969 New York, and the Gold children, Varya (13), Daniel (11), Klara (9) and Simon (7), are bored. As a result, it does not take much convincing to visit a fortune teller who can predict the day someone will die. Klara, already fascinated with magic, simply wants to meet someone who works in magic; the rest of the children have other motivations or are propelled along, some more interested than others, since they have nothing better to do. This initial chapter is told from Varya’s perspective, who immediately deems the whole thing a scam when told she will live to the old age of 88, but she is surprised to discover her siblings’ angry and distraught responses to their fortunes.
It is only nine years later, after their father’s unexpected death, that the siblings reveal their predictions to each other: Daniel’s been promised 49 years, Klara 31 and Simon won’t elaborate beyond saying young. However, whatever he was told, it was low enough to drive him to run off with his sister Klara to San Francisco only a few weeks later so he can experience life rather than be trapped into family expectations of caring for his mother or taking over the family business. Simon is gay, and late ‘70s/early ‘80s Castro gives him a chance to explore this part of himself, find love and discover new skills and passions. Unfortunately, it all ends much too quickly when a disease starts ravishing the population, too new to even have a name.
While I quite enjoyed the whole novel, Simon’s part was my favorite. It’s been almost four decades since AIDS made its initial mark, and it’s hard to even imagine what life was like before or during that period. Simon goes from reveling in freedom and acceptance to being driven by fear and recklessness. With all the medical progression and the many examples of people who have lived with HIV for decades, the sheer speed and efficiency with which it killed in the beginning is unfathomable to me. There have been a few posts and articles in recent years talking about how shocking the AIDS epidemic was, to make sure this part of history isn’t forgotten, including one article about older gay men in San Francisco and an Arkansas woman who helped dying gay men so it’s definitely a topic I’m interested. Benjamin was able to make me see things through Simon’s eyes, and appreciate and understand his choices, even knowing what the result would be.
After Simon, the novel shifts to Klara’s perspective, then Daniel’s, and finally Varya’s. While Klara is a gifted and charismatic magician, she also has problems, drinks too much, and can never quite make herself focus enough to keep momentum going. It is only once she becomes involved with Raj that she dares to dream bigger but she continues to be haunted by her brother’s death and her fortune. Daniel, on the other hand, lives exactly the type of conventional middle class life one imagines he would have lived with or without the prophecy even as it keeps nagging at him. It doesn’t help that a certain detective has turned fortune tellers into a pet project. Finally, Varya has devoted her life to research on aging and longevity. There is a certain amount of irony that the sibling who was promised the longest life becomes the most obsessed with prolonging life, to the point where the life she lives is barely a life. While the youngest siblings rebel against their sentences by trying to experience it all, Varya acts as if her longevity is both a curse and something to be duplicated.
Despite the four siblings going to the fortuneteller together, this is not a close-knit family. Simon and Klara are close as the youngest two, so the reader knows much about what is going on with Klara through Simon, but Varya and Daniel only have brief mentions in their siblings’ chapters. Rather than bonding over their fortune telling adventure, it appears to have driven them further apart. It was unfortunate that they did not have closer relationships, and Daniel especially regrets this in chapters. The four siblings had such different personalities and interests but Benjamin made all of them sympathetic and interesting. Daniel’s story was the weakest, mostly because I did not find his actions in character though Benjamin does build up enough stressors throughout his chapter to potentially justify this break in character.
I quite enjoyed the novel, and it raises several questions about its topic for the readers (this is probably a great book club novel). How differently would someone act if they knew exactly how much time they had? Would their lives and deaths have happened on those dates regardless of their knowledge or did knowing the fortunes lead to decisions and actions that led them to come true (very Greek tragedy there)? What’s more tragic, Simon’s early death or Varya’s lack of connections? Personally, if it were possible to really know the date you die, I think I would want to know if I were going to die young because I am certainly driven by ideas of responsibility and financial security in retirement when it comes to some of my decisions. However, looking at Varya, I think one message is that some risks should be taken, regardless.
Thanks for writing such a complimentary review for this one, Caitlin_D – I’m not sure I would have discovered this read without it.