New York City, 1969: The Gold siblings are looking at another monotonous summer together on New York City’s Lower East Side. But even as they anticipate the days blend together, they know that things are about to change. This is the last summer they’ll all be together like this before summer jobs and school and so many other things get in the way.
It seems like the perfect time to do something drastic like visit the mystical psychic Daniel has heard about in whispers all around the neighborhood, leading them to the cluttered apartment on Hester Street. They say the woman can tell you exactly when you’ll die. But none of them understand what that means when they still have so much life left. At least, they think they do.
As time passes, they’ll all be shaped by that hot summer day and the dates the fortuneteller told them. Simon–the youngest, the golden boy–will never stop running; throwing himself into anything and everything as he tries to find love and, if he’s lucky, his truest self as he runs away to San Francisco in the 1980s.
In the 1990s Klara lands in Las Vegas. After years of trying to make a go of her show as an illusionist, her act might finally be taking off. But after years performing as a mentalist, Klara is no longer sure where reality ends and the magic begins–a blurred line that could lead to her greatest performance ever. Or have disastrous consequences.
Daniel, the eldest, has spent his life as a doctor. It isn’t always glamorous but he’s happy, isn’t he? When one unexpected Thanksgiving shows Daniel everything he could have had–and everything he never will–he becomes obsessed with understanding the truth of the mystical woman all those years ago.
Varya never had much use for people–or for the prediction she received on Hester Street–but as she finds herself more and more entrenched in her work on longevity research, even practical Varya begins to wonder if things would have–could have–been different if they’d all made different choices on that long ago summer day in The Immortalists (2018) by Chloe Benjamin.
The Gold family is white and Jewish with varying levels of faith with more diversity among the secondary cast. The story is broken into four parts–one following each sibling–over the course of twenty some odd years.
Benjamin’s sweeping generational family saga tackles big questions of fate vs agency without offering many answers one way or another. Crossing the country and spanning decades, The Immortalists captures the zeitgeist of the times starting with the frenzied energy of San Francisco in the 1980s and the ensuing panic and grief of the growing AIDS crisis. Simon’s section starts when Simon is only sixteen leading to a lot of instances of reading about Simon’s underage sexual encounters with much older men. While not unrealistic for the time it still felt uncomfortable to read about in relation to a character who is still essentially a child.
The omniscient third person narrator also clings closely to the female gaze–particularly with Simon but also even in the opening page with Varya–focusing needlessly on objectification particularly with instances when Simon wants the “challenge” of another “hard” body like his own. There could be arguments that this adds nuance to literary fiction but, for me, it only served to constantly draw me out of the story.
Ultimately The Immortalists raises some interesting questions by putting a family through an increasingly unpleasant series of events across a generation. Readers interested in philosophical questions about life choices will find a lot to appreciate here while readers hoping to lean more into the fantastical elements will be better served elsewhere.
Possible Pairings: In Some Other World, Maybe by Shari Goldhagen, The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo, An Extraordinary Destiny by S. N. Paleja, One Italian Summer by Rebecca Serle