Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on January 9th 2018
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FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
Based on all of the 4 and 5 star ratings I’m seeing on Goodreads for this book, I think I’m going to be the “unpopular opinion” when it comes to Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists. Let me start off by saying I didn’t hate it – it was a solid read for me and I was able to finish it in just a few days. It just didn’t wow me like I thought it would based on the synopsis, which hooked me as soon as I read it.
The Immortalists begins its journey in New York, the Lower East Side, in 1969. The story follows the Gold siblings – teenagers Simon, Klara, Daniel, and Varya – as they set out to meet a traveling fortune teller. Rumor has it that this fortune teller has the ability to predict the exact day a person will die, and the Golds can’t resist going to see her to hear what she has to say about each of them.
Armed with this information – if the fortune teller is to be believed – the Gold siblings begin to make their way in the world. They choose not to share their dates with one another, although the youngest, Simon, hints that the fortune teller has said he will die young. The novel then follows the siblings, one by one, over the next five decades, from the moment they each know their date of death until that date actually arrives so that we can see how (or if) knowing that information has any impact on choices they make in life.
My favorite part of The Immortalists is its central question: “Would you live your life any differently if you knew the exact date you would die?” This was the question in the synopsis that initially hooked me. It’s just one of those questions that immediately makes you reflect on your own life and mortality. As soon as I began following these siblings and seeing some of the choices they were making, it really made me think about what I would do if I was armed with the same knowledge they were. Would I do anything differently? Pursue my dreams more aggressively, take more risks, etc. The thought provoking aspect of this book was its biggest asset for me. I could see this being a fantastic book club choice because of the discussion it naturally lends itself to.
I also enjoyed the way the story was presented. In many ways it could be considered an extensive epic history of the Gold family. At the same time, however, because of the way we follow each sibling one at a time, it manages to be an intimate exploration of their individual personal lives as well. I liked that combination.
I think my biggest issue with The Immortalists was with the characters themselves. I just didn’t feel like I really connected with any of them. Even though I was getting an in-depth look at each of their lives, I still somehow felt like an outsider just observing them, almost as if they were a psychology experiment. I’m the kind of reader that really wants to connect with and relate to the characters in a book, so this just made it a little difficult for me to feel completely invested in their lives.
A second issue I had was with the predictability of Simon’s storyline. As I mentioned, he hints that he will die young. He chooses to quit school and move across the country to San Francisco. I don’t want to give away too many details so I’ll just say that we learn he is gay and looking for love. Since much of his story takes place in the early 1980s, based on some rather reckless choices he makes, it became instantly clear to me what was going to happen to him if the fortune teller’s prediction turned out to be true. It was still sad to read, but the predictability took some of the emotional punch out of it for me. Thankfully, the other three siblings had less predictable storylines, but this one was definitely an easy guess for me.
A final issue I had was with the story of Varya, primarily because it features some pretty horrifying animal experimentation that I wish I hadn’t read about. I found it so disturbing that it made it hard to make it to the end of the book. There is an author’s note at the end to address the experimentation, which I was very grateful for, but it was just still so jarring to read about.
While I wish The Immortalists has been a better read for me, it still has a lot of good points and I’m sure plenty of others will love it. Even with the issues I had with it, I was still pleased that it was such a thought-provoking read overall. I predict that it will become a book club favorite this year!
If you were told the date of your death, how would it shape your present?
It’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.
Their 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, hoping to control fate; and bookish Varya throws herself into longevity research, where she tests the boundary between science and immortality.