In Chloe Benjamin’s luminous new novel, The Immortalists (Putnam), four siblings, all children, seek out a woman who, they’ve heard, can tell each of them the day they will die. Not how, but when. A casual few words: a month, a day, and a year. They’re given a glimpse around a corner and then go on with their lives, not oblivious exactly, but not unaffected by the information either.
The year is 1969. The nation is in turmoil. The deaths of the Kennedys and MLK are behind us. Nixon is president. And four Jewish siblings who live on New York’s Lower East Side venture to meet this mysterious woman who can see the future.
These are the Gold children, and as the novel begins they (and we) feel that it’s at least possible that they’ll be golden as well. The youngest, Simon, is trying to find himself, and he goes to San Francisco to embrace (and be embraced by) its vibrant gay culture, where he can find love and sex and acceptance beyond his wildest dreams. His sister, Klara, goes with him, searching for her own fortune in the golden west. She wants to be a magician, searching for meaning in the mysteries of life.
Daniel and Varya remain in the east, building lives as they keep an eye on their widowed mother, Gertie. The two of them aren’t exactly content where they are, and in fact they resent Simon and Klara for deserting them, especially Simon, who seems to trade his blood family for a family of friends and lovers whose blood isn’t nearly as clean as he thinks it is.
Daniel marries and has a quiet life working as an Army doctor, evaluating would-be soldiers who may or may not be fit to go to Vietnam. Varya goes into research, involving herself in longevity studies, searching for ways to lengthen one’s life. In some ways they’re the same, and in some they’re contrasts: Daniel, perhaps, sentences boys to death; Varya looks for ways to prolong life.
The four place themselves on very different paths, and one by one they stare down the dates the psychic shared with them. Simon and Klara cross the country in search of some sense of greater meaning, or at least to mine the dreams they have inside. Both long for ways to stuff their lives with experiences, filling themselves up as their clocks tick down.
Meanwhile, as the years roll by, Daniel and Varya take a quieter route into the future. They’re not searching for glitter. They’re building much more grounded lives, focused on family and work. Of the four, Varya is the most focused, throwing herself into her work while denying herself the pleasures that so fascinate Simon, for example.
Given that this is a book about four people who know the dates of their death, it would be easy to say it is about how to live. In fact, it’s already been said. But The Immortalists is much more than that. Benjamin’s writing is sumptuous. Fearlessly, she gets into the minds of these people in ways that are truly astounding, and she gets into their hearts even more deeply, uncovering both what makes them tick as well as why they tick the way they do. It’s a book about how we’re damaged, about legacy and disappointment, about how younger generations build on the ones that came before, and perhaps even a certain kind of immortality, as the title suggests. As these siblings struggle with their dreams and realities—the two things life is really made of, in the end—this book is more than an examination of how to live. It’s about how, for our own reasons, to cram more life into our own lives for as long as we have them. ◊