Contemporary Literature

The Immortalists

This recent release was one of the most hyped I have ever experienced, and a number of people who’s reviews I really trust loved it. Not only that, but the premise really did sound fascinating. I had wanted to read it faster, but, as life goes, other books (and things) got in the way. And of course, the waitlist for it at the library was out of control. But last week I was actually there for a totally unrelated reason (the fact that my job often interacts with the library makes my “you are not allowed to check out any more books until you read the ones you have” really hard to follow sometimes) and saw it on the “lucky day shelf.” So here I am, after dropping everything else to read it before it’s due back (because you can’t renew lucky day books!).

The Immortalists By Chloe Benjamin

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“Is it a story if you believe it?”

The Immortalists opens with four siblings, living in NYC in 1969, going to visit a traveling seer/psychic. The woman tells each of them the date of their death, irrevocably altering each of their approaches to life and the future. Let me tell you just a little about each…

“She’d always thought of home as a physical destination, but…perhaps home, like the moon, will follow wherever she goes.”

The youngest, Simon, breaks his family’s hearts (especially his mother’s) by running away to San Francisco and becoming a dancer. Young and gay in the 1980s, it is not hard to see where his story is going. But that doesn’t make reading it any less page-turningly tragic. I totally cried. This was a fascinating story to start with, and it really starts asking some of the questions that become the central theme of the entire novel. In this case, does knowing you will die young help you to live a fuller life and reach to experience more with your limited time? Or does it make you reckless and more likely to self-fulfill the prophecy? His naïve quest to live as his true self in the time he has is likely why this story hit me hardest of the four.

“‘We know something about reality, my father and I. And I bet you know it, too. Is it that reality is too much? Too painful, too limited, too restrictive of joy or opportunity? No,’ she says. ‘I think it’s that reality is not enough.’”

Next, Klara. The second youngest, she was the only family member present with Simon as he died and it has affected her greatly. Pulling on her need to keep him “alive” and blur the lines between life and death, the past and reality, Klara follows in her family namesake’s shoes and gets into stage magic. I’m honestly not a huge fan of this type of magic, but her character was so deeply and compellingly written that I didn’t mind it here. The mental strain she deals with regarding her knowledge of her death date, and how it pushes her to lose herself (in many ways), is a much more intense look at that theme of self-fulfilling prophecy that was introduced in Simon’s story. I was blown away by the emotional complexity here.

“Thoughts have wings.”

Daniel, second oldest, was likely my least favorite of the stories. He manages to “ignore” the death date prophecy throughout his life by pushing it out of mind and living/making choices without it as a driving factor. However, as his date draws closer, outside events bring memories of the old psychic back into his life and, along with a convenient suspension from work and visit from Klara’s husband and daughter dredging up long-buried feelings, Daniel’s feelings of guilt for taking the siblings into visiting the woman in the first place cause him to make some very questionable decisions. I really enjoyed the more scientific exploration of self-fulfilling prophecy in this chapter, looking at the connections between the psychological and physiological, and the possible placebo role of the prophecy in Simon and Klara’s deaths. Even more fascinating was how Daniel “succumbed” (if you will) even knowing what he did as a doctor and as a survivor of his two younger siblings’ struggles with the same thing. I also loved seeing Klara’s daughter as a young adult, and how she is turning out while balancing her mother’s legacy but lack of direct parenting.

“…the prophecy worked inside her like a virus. She saw it do the same thing to her siblings: it was evident in Simon’s sprints, in Daniel’s tendency towards anger, in the way Klara unlatched and drifted away from them. Perhaps they had always been like this. Or perhaps they would have developed in these ways regardless.”

Last, we have the oldest, Varya. This one is perhaps, sneakily, the saddest of the four. Although she was given the farthest away death date, one that will allow her to live a legitimately long and fruitful life, her reactions to knowing it, and to surviving all her siblings’ deaths, cause her to live in a way that is quite…empty. She throws herself into research of longevity, spending all of her time and effort looking for ways to prevent what is, essentially, inevitable. She struggles with control issues and OCD, with compulsions that she cannot help, in an effort to try and change outcomes. And she has chosen, not consciously maybe, but in action, to not create any long or lasting relationships, because they will all eventually lead to loss. The question that is asked here is slightly different, but thematically similar. If you could extend your lifetime by not fully living (denying yourself many things, from creature comforts to dramatic caloric restrictions), is that better? What defines life – is it quantity or quality? This was phenomenally explored through Varya’s tale.

This truly was an amazing novel with a unique premise that completely delivered. Totally engrossing, it kept me turning pages late into the night and delved, in a truly profound way, into themes of family and what makes life worth living. I am really impressed by the breadth in this story. Unfortunately, I think I let the hype get to me; this was just not quite as spectacular as I was expecting. However, I have few to no actual complaints, just an overall feeling afterwards that the final fireworks display was missing somewhere (for me). I unreservedly recommend this though, as a magnificently written contemporary novel, to pretty much everyone.

 

 

 

 

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