“Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.”
― Alexander Pope
I had been waiting to read Chloe Benjamin’s second novel, The Immortalists–which hit bookshelves four days ago–since last summer. That’s when Michael Kindness started shouting from digital mountaintops about how good this book was, and how he couldn’t wait for people to read it when it was finally published.
Then came the Publisher’s Weekly review, which claimed the author had written “a cleverly structured novel steeped in Jewish lore and the history of four decades of American life.” It was described as “a moving meditation on fate, faith, and the family ties that alternately hurt and heal.”
Then there’s that cover. Even if had been described as “Trump’s twitter feed, but worse” I probably still would have bought it. Early contender for Cover of the Year, for sure.
Finally, in a moment of apparent serendipity, I won a Goodreads giveaway and ended up getting a copy of the book two weeks early. More than six months after Kindness’ proselytizing, everything had fallen into place.
Things went downhill from there.
The Immortalists has one of the best hooks I’ve ever come across. 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.
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.
Essentially, The Immortalists looks to answer the question, “If you were told the date of your death, how would it shape your present?”
It’s a fascinating concept, one rife with possibilities. It forces the reader to ask himself/herself some pretty complicated questions: If you were going to die early how would it affect the way you live? If you were going to die old would you live like a daredevil the entire time because you feel immune? How would this affect your friendships, your relationships, and your career? How would it affect your relationship with God, fate, science, etc.?
Before we explore these questions, let’s take another look at that Publisher’s Weekly quotation one more time:
“The four Gold siblings are wonderful creations, and in Benjamin’s expert hands their story becomes a moving meditation on fate, faith, and the family ties that alternately hurt and heal.”
Now, let’s break it down, because as Luke Skywalker likes to say these days, “Every word in that sentence was wrong.”
“The Four Gold Siblings Are Wonderful Creations”
The tragic thing about The Immortalists is that the admittedly fantastic premise seems to have been concocted in order to set up the framework of Benjamin’s novel–four separate, chronological narratives, one for each of the children as adults. The hook, that each of these characters knows (or at least think they know) the day they’re going to die, barely influences their lives. Or, it influences a handful of days right before they are predicted to die.
What’s left, then, is a simple novel about a family over the course of 50 years: Simon’s life in the gay scene in San Francisco, Klara’s career as a stage magician, Daniel’s life as a military doctor, and Varya’s life as a researcher of the aging process.
Outside of Simon, who is the only character with a sense of urgency, the Gold siblings are pretty fucking boring.
Klara, the best of the rest, is a stage magician and yet Benjamin never really explores the relationship between the seemingly magical fortune teller who sets Klara’s life in motion and the career she ultimately chose. With Klara she could have explored the nature of reality or included notes of magical realism, instead she only scratches the surface. There is a moment at the end of Klara’s section that hints at elements of the beyond, but this is essentially all we get in 350 pages.
Daniel spends his section trying to find the woman who gave them the prophecy, but other than these two details about him (his purpose and his name) I can’t recall a single thing about him. He was a nothing creation who had one of the dumbest arcs I’ve read in quite some time.
Varya, the oldest of the Golds, is the luckiest of the four. She lives the longest, but seems to do the least with the time she was given (which may have been Benjamin’s point but it made for a pretty lackluster finale).
Because Benjamin essentially abandoned any notion of the supernatural after the first twenty pages, we got a novel about family dynamics that literally had no family dynamics. The four children live almost entirely separate from one another. Their stories do not overlap, aside from Simon and Klara. They’re estranged, basically. Which means that all of that drama, all that tension, all that meaning was ignored by the author.
Nevertheless, it seems clear that Benjamin wanted to write a story about this family. The problem with that is there are so many books that offer better, more important generational stories: Gilead, Roots, The God of Small Things, The Brothers Karamazov (or The Brothers K, even), East of Eden, Dune, I Know This Much is True, The Godfather, and the list goes on.
“Benjamin’s Expert Hands”
Before The Immortalists, Chloe Benjamin had written only one novel, The Anatomy of Dreams, which you probably haven’t heard of. It has an underwhelming 3.33 rating on Goodreads (not the greatest arbiter of quality, but its less-than-800 ratings shows that it barely made a dent). I read it. It’s okay.
The Immortalists is fine. The stories are interesting enough to keep turning the pages. Benjamin has an easy way about her. But when I think of everything the book didn’t do, it just pisses me off.
The dynamics of the novel’s hook are never really explored. Are the Gold children essentially invincible until their death dates? If they, say, tried to kill themselves beforehand, could they do it? Would mysterious factors prevent them from doing so?
The book makes you ask so many questions, and it answers so few of them.
Plus, this is a book about four people hurtling toward their deaths and I only really cared about one of them.
We open with an emphasis on the supernatural, or at the very least some magical realism, and then those elements completely disappear for the remainder of the novel. It’s a horrible bait and switch to a readership that, presumably, picked the book up because of those elements.
Weirdly, my biggest complaint with the novel is that it’s nowhere near long enough. Benjamin needed to do one of two things: either focus on one character and explore their journey with great detail, or focus on the four Gold children and write a massive 800-page opus. She did neither.
“A Moving Meditation on Fate, Faith, and Family Ties”
For this to have been moving there would have had to have been meditations on these things in the first place.
A woman predicts when they are going to die and yet these four characters almost never question their place in the afterlife, or the role of God, or the meaning of life. As soon as one of them dies on their pre-ordained day (which, spoiler, happens at least once), their entire worlds should change.
There is a woman out there who can see the fucking future. Not only that, but evidently we all have an expiration date. And somehow these people don’t start questioning everything?
Stupidly, Benjamin doesn’t allow the Gold children to know the death-dates of their siblings. Inexplicably, they all keep theirs a secret. So once the first Gold dies, it doesn’t force the rest to examine the nature of the prophecy because they don’t actually know it’s coming true.
When it comes to family ties, there aren’t any, as I said before. The four narratives barely intertwine, and the four siblings live, essentially, separate lives. Honestly, it just felt like Benjamin wanted to write about the San Fran gay scene, the life of a magician, the military, and lab research, and found a narrative hook that allowed her to do that.
Wait, Why 3 Stars: I know, I basically just trashed the book for 1300 words. But to be fair, I blew through this in three days. It’s a very readable book, which gets you three stars, but four- and five-star books need a lot more meat on them.
Favorite Quotation: “For so long he hated the woman, too. How, he wondered, could she give such a terrible fortune to a child? But now he thinks of her differently, like a second mother or a god, she who showed him the door and said: go.”
Why I Read It: Michael Kindness has impeccable taste. Follow him on Twitter.
Where I Got It: Goodreads giveaway.
Should You Buy It: If you’re intrigued by the premise, I wouldn’t tell you not to. I know a few people who were much more moved by this book than I was. If you’re on the fence, I’d say don’t bother. Or just take mine. I don’t want it anymore.
Proof That I’m Probably a Hack:
- Entertainment Weekly’s “Must-read Books for 2018”
- Elle’s “19 of the Best Books to Read This Winter”
- Harper’s Bazaar’s “10 New Books to Add to Your Reading List in 2018”
- Southern Living‘s “Books Coming Out This Winter That We Can’t Wait to Read”
- Martha Stewart Living, “On Our Bookshelf”
- InStyle‘s “10 Books We Can’t Wait to Read in 2018”
- Huffington Post‘s “60 Books We Can’t Wait to Read in 2018”
- Bustle‘s “35 Most-Anticipated Fiction Books of 2018”
- Nylon’s “50 Books We Can’t Wait To Read In 2018”
- Goop’s “12 Books for Winter Break”
- BookPage’s “Most Anticipated Fiction of 201”
- Book Riot’s “101 Books Coming Out in 2018 That You Should Mark Down Now”
- HelloGiggles’ “Most Anticipated Books of 2018”
- PureWow‘s “20 Books We Can’t Wait to Read in 2018”
- Goodreads’ “Most Anticipated Books of 2018”
- Book Riot‘s “Most Anticipated Books of January 2018”
- TimeOut’s “Eleven New Books to Read This Month”
Note that most of these are lists from people who have yet to read the book…