I finished Chloe Benjamin’s second novel, The Immortalists, over two months ago but for various reasons (involving the end of an academic semester and a trip to China) haven’t sat down to complete my review. However, last night a chance discussion at my book club reminded me that I wanted to get my thoughts/impressions of this book on paper now rather than later.
The Immortalists is our selection for later this fall, and one of our members had just gotten a copy of the novel from a mutual friend because that friend had hated and couldn’t even finish it. Since two of us had already read the book and loved it, we were a bit surprised by this news. However, it was just another reminder that a book isn’t simply content in in a book-shaped box but the complex interaction of the reader (with all their memories and attitudes) with the text. That helps me to understand why someone I know and love could hate a book that I plan to give five stars to.
For a multitude of reasons, this book hit all my buttons and I distinctly remember being annoyed that I had to put it down to spend time responding to my Comp 1 students’ research projects. It’s the story of four members of the Gold family—Simon, Klara, Daniel, and Varya—who sneak out one night in 1969 to have their fortunes told by a mysterious woman in their Lower East Side neighborhood. The woman reveals to each of them (individually) the date of their deaths and it’s how each sibling responds to this information that is at the heart of this novel.
Benjamin gives each sibling their own section and follows them as their lives draw closer and closer to the final date they’ve been given. It’s riveting and heartbreaking and maddening and these characters felt so real to me that I cried at various points . . . a lot. It made me think about fate, free will, and the choices we make in the face of the idea that someday we will not exist. It’s not always an easy or comfortable read, but it’s one I won’t soon forget.