The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

30288282It’s 1969 in New York City’s Lower East Side, and word has spread of the arrival of a mystical woman, a traveling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die. The Gold children—four adolescents on the cusp of self-awareness—sneak out to hear their fortunes.

The prophecies inform their next five decades. Golden-boy Simon escapes to the West Coast, searching for love in ’80s San Francisco; dreamy Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician, obsessed with blurring reality and fantasy; eldest son Daniel seeks security as an army doctor post-9/11; and bookish Varya throws herself into longevity research, where she tests the boundary between science and immortality.

Review:

Content warning for suicide and alcoholism.

The Immortalists was my second read for The Booktube Prize and right from the start I liked it better than the first.

The good:

  • The writing is punchier than White Houses and I needed that. It’s not amazing – I only highlighted a line or two – but it works.
  • The main thematic thrust of the book, pitting fate against self-fulfilling prophecy, is interesting.
  • You can tell when Benjamin writes about a place she knows because it pops off the page. I may be biased because I’ve also lived in San Francisco, but she brought me right back in an almost bodily way.
  • The character work is good. Everyone is well rounded and flawed, down to the secondary characters. Maybe it’s because they don’t have much time on the page but they ended up being some of my favorites. (Robert! 💕)
  • The author did a ton of research and it shows, both in the writing and the lengthy acknowledgements. It all rang right for me, even the medical stuff. Well done.

The not-so-good:

  • I felt trepidation picking up this book because fate! Ack! Don’t mess with it! And the beginning chapters only made it worse – the first character’s story arc is dead predictable, and the second character’s story filled me with dread.
  • At the start the fate/self-fulfilling prophecy thing was wonderfully blurry and interesting to think about, but that sense of mystery is ruined as more and more characters confront it. By the time we get to the end there isn’t much left to ponder.
  • I was hoping for more fabulist elements, but the whole thing is quite grounded in reality.
  • The only character that carries through the entire book in a meaningful way is the mother, and I would have liked to see her recognized as a constant in their lives. We get bits and pieces of her life but she is usually off to the side, and a less important presence to many of the kids than their father.

Overall the book is uneven, with some chapters I dreaded reading and others that I couldn’t put down. It ended up being an okay read, but not as amazing as all the hype I’ve heard.