Saturday, September 2, 2017

Book Review: "The Immortalists" by Chloe Benjamin

If you could know the exact day of your death, would you want to find out? If you did find out, how would knowing that information affect how you lived your life? These questions are at the heart of The Immortalists, Chloe Benjamin's deeply affecting and beautifully written new book.

In 1969, growing up on New York's Lower East Side, the Gold siblings learn that there is a traveling fortune teller in their neighborhood who can tell anyone the day they will die. While not everyone is sure that this is actually true, the four children—straightforward Varya, bossy Daniel, impetuous, magic-obsessed Klara, and dreamy Simon—decide to find out.

What the woman tells each of them that day will greatly affect their lives, none more so than Klara and Simon. Klara, wanting nothing more than to pursue a career as a magician and illusionist, can't get out of New York and away from her stifling family soon enough, and she lets her younger brother Simon convince them that the two should flee to San Francisco after Klara graduates from high school. Simon knows he is different and dreams that San Francisco will be the place he can finally be free to be who he is, to find love and be someone other than the son destined to inherit his family's garment business.

Klara watches as her brother pursues his life with reckless abandon, and while she wants to pursue her dreams as well, she knows she must be the stable one for him. Both are driven by the fortune teller's prophecy, which causes them to be more reckless and impetuous than they should, but also to take chances they might not otherwise pursue, to truly live their lives to their fullest. And when Klara finally meets someone who can help take her to the cusp of the world she craves entry to, she envisions bringing her illusions and tricks to an appreciating public, no matter the toll it takes on her.

"Some magicians say that magic shatters your worldview. But I think magic holds the world together. It's dark matter; it's the glue of reality, the putty that fills the holes between everything we know to be true. And it takes magic to reveal how inadequate reality is."

Meanwhile, Daniel and Varya, both angry and envious that their younger siblings left them responsible for their aging, widowed mother, try not to focus on whether what the fortune teller told them will come true, yet both pursue more grounded, stable careers—Daniel as a military doctor responsible for determining which soldiers are healthy enough to go to war, and Varya as a researcher determined to find the secrets of longevity. But each have secrets of their own, as well as the shared secrets which cause them increasing fear, anxiety, and guilt.

The Immortalists is a fascinating book, one which was both surprising and predictable. Parts are truly moving and powerful—the first two sections, which focus on Simon and Klara, are much stronger than those which focus on Daniel and Varya. Daniel's section veers off-course with the reappearance of a character and a situation that seems entirely too pat, and Varya's section loses a bit of focus when it dwells in-depth on the science of her research, but the conclusion recaptures the passion, emotion, and beauty of the beginning.

Benjamin is a fantastic storyteller and she has created a tremendously thought-provoking book. Is our destiny really predetermined, or can we have a hand in changing what is destined? Does the idea of knowing how long your life might last encourage you to live life to the fullest, or does it instead fill you with more fear and dread than the unknown would?

I don't think I'll be able to get this book out of my mind anytime soon. The characters were so vivid, and even when the plot lost track, I was immersed in the story, which I'm being vague about because I don't want to spoil anything. I can't wait to see what comes next in Benjamin's literary career.

NetGalley and PENGUIN GROUP Putnam provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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