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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 245

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The Immortalists asks the dire question: if you knew exactly when you were going to die, how would you live? The story is set in the Lower East Side of New York in 1969. It tells the story of the Gold children, who are young and coming of age. They get wind of a mystic woman who claims to be able to tell the exact date of one’s death. Restless in the summer heat, the children sneak out to hear their fortune told. The children leave terrified of their fate and remain silent about their predicted dates until the passing of their father nine years later.

Simon is predicted to die at a young age, just after his 20th birthday. He runs to San Francisco in wanderlust. He comes out as a gay man and takes advantage of his newly found sexual freedom.

Klara is predicted to die in her early 30’s. She is swept up by the mysticism of it all and becomes a musician in Las Vegas. Her acts tests the boundaries between reality and imagination.

Daniel is in search of stability and becomes a doctor in the army after 9/11.

Varya tests the very question the psychic poses and researches the science of immorality.

The stories unfold sharing the ways in which the children cope with their knowledge. In many ways, it is a social experiment that follows the various choices we may make with the knowledge of when our lives will end.

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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1868

Author: Chloe Benjamin (b. 1988)

Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons (New York). 352 pp.

Type of work: Novel

Time: 1969–2010

Locales: New York City, Kingston, and Albany, New York; San Francisco and Marin County, California; Las Vegas, Nevada; West Milton, Ohio

A Jewish family saga with supernatural undertones, The Immortalists follows the lives of four siblings who, as children, visit a fortune-teller in New York City. Upon request, the woman tells the children the exact date they will die, and the novel illustrates their different reactions to the information.

Principal characters

Varya Gold, the oldest Gold sibling, a longevity researcher

Daniel Gold, the second-oldest Gold sibling, a military physician

Klara Gold, the second-youngest Gold sibling, a stage magician and aerial feat performer

Simon Gold, the youngest Gold sibling, a dancer at a gay nightclub and a ballet member

Eddie O’Donoghue, a policeman, later an FBI agent

Bruna Costello, a fortune-teller

The prologue of The Immortalists (2018) presents an irresistible storytelling premise. On a hot summer day in volatile 1969, the four Gold siblings of New York City—Varya, thirteen, Daniel eleven, Klara, nine, and Simon, seven—collect their allowance savings and set off to see a woman on nearby Hester Street, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, New York City. Daniel has heard about an old fortune-teller who can predict the date of someone’s death and persuades his brother and sisters to help him find her. They locate where the old woman lives, and one by one enter her apartment to hear her prophecies. Afterward, only Varya, who has been given a death date of January 21, 2044, when she will be eighty-eight years old, reveals what the woman said. The others will not tell what was forecast, except for Simon, who says he was told he will die young.

The novel is subsequently divided into four parts and the narration unfolds in third-person present tense, which lends an immediacy to passages set in the past. The different sections cover the years and events that lead up to the fateful dates predicted for each of the four siblings. Each part follows one of the siblings—arranged from youngest to oldest child and in predicted order of death—and illustrates the degree of credence the siblings give the supposedly otherworldly knowledge. Introspective Varya, the oldest child, is most skeptical about the clairvoyant’s abilities: she thinks they were told what they wanted to hear. However, impressionable Simon, the youngest, accepts his fate: he has always felt that he would not be alive for long and takes the fortune-teller’s message to heart. Each character’s story is inextricably linked to the other characters, and the sections are interrelated through memories, flashbacks, and references to physical objects that recall specific events (photos, paperweights, cards and letters).Courtesy of Penguin

The first part, which takes place between 1978 and 1982, spotlights Simon while also incorporating key elements of Klara’s character development. At the beginning of the period, patriarch Saul Gold suddenly dies. As the only available son—as Daniel is in college studying to be a physician—Simon is expected to take over management of the family’s tailor and dressmaking business. The idea is repugnant to Simon, then sixteen, who has no interest in women’s fashion. Instead, Simon wants to embrace his newly discovered sexuality. At the end of the school year, Simon begs Klara, who has just graduated, to let him accompany her to the West Coast. Since Simon is Klara’s favorite sibling, she agrees. Upon their arrival in San Francisco, the siblings stay briefly with a former classmate, before using the last of their scant funds to rent an apartment in the Castro district. To help earn money, Simon secures a job as a go-go dancer at a gay nightclub. Because he is not particularly graceful, Simon takes ballet classes to improve his dancing techniques. There, he meets the handsome ballet dancer Robert. The two men are drawn to one another and become lovers, roommates, and performance partners. Despite comfortable, secure living arrangements, Simon frequently goes nightclubbing and is unfaithful to Robert.

In addition to the main story line, Benjamin introduces a subplot that threads throughout the novel, following city policeman Eddie O’Donoghue as he meets and interacts with the different Gold siblings. Eddie first meets Simon, whom he takes into custody as an underage runaway. The cop forces Simon to call his family, and his mother, Gertie, pleads with him to come home. When Simon refuses, however, Gertie tells him she never wants to see him again. Always supportive, Klara, who is now working as a temp and drinking to excess, comes to pick up Simon from the police station. Eddie is immediately smitten with her, though she feels nothing for him. © Nathan Jandl

In the early 1980s Simon contracts an unknown and often lethal disease (later known as acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS) that is having a disproportionate impact on the gay community. On his deathbed, Simon calls home, briefly conversing with his disinterested brother. Just before he dies—on the exact day predicted for his death—Simon tells vigil-keepers Klara and Robert that without having been told his fate, he would never have had the courage to leave home or to pursue the amount of pleasure and experiences he had during his brief life.

Simon’s untimely death sends shockwaves through the family. Gertie feels guilty for rejecting her youngest child. Simon’s surviving siblings are each struck in different ways by the fact and timing of his passing. Klara believes in the truth of the fortune-teller’s words more than ever; Daniel is torn between doubt and belief; and Varya, concentrating on science, needs further proof to determine if there was a correlation between prediction and outcome.

Part 2, covering 1982 to 1991, showcases Klara’s development from amateur magician to professional performer, as well as her budding romance with Rajanikant “Raj” Chapal, an Indian immigrant with mechanical skills. Trained in sleight-of-hand while a teenaged employee at an old vaudevillian’s magic shop, Klara has created a special show called “the Immortalist.” She combines prestidigitation with a circus-type feat. Inspired by photos of her namesake grandmother, Klara performs the “Jaws of Life”: a stunt achieved by clinging by her teeth while suspended at a height from a rope. Her grandmother died in a fall while performing the act over Times Square in 1941. Klara’s aspirations are initially modest: she is content to travel nomadically, performing at small venues and trying to contact Simon in the spirit world. Klara hopes that her act will remind her audiences to believe in magic, something she accomplishes when, after seeing her show several times, Eddie O’Donoghue tells her that she has reminded him that impossible is possible. Raj, however, is more ambitious: he wants the fame and fortune he was denied when born into extreme poverty in India. After he and Klara marry, and she gives birth to their daughter Ruby, Raj slowly assumes greater control of the act. He convinces a reluctant Klara that their future lies in Las Vegas, and she finally agrees to give it a try. Through persistence and charm, Raj manages to secure a contract to perform at the Mirage casino in the week before Klara—who has not told her husband the date she was given—is destined to die.

Part 3 concerns Daniel Gold between 1991 and 2006. A military physician who has risen to the rank of major, Daniel has enjoyed a long career. By 2006, however, he is suffering from a crisis of conscience. He has worked for several years at the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) in Albany, New York, and he feels increasingly uneasy approving recruits with normally disqualifying mental or physical conditions for combat in Iraq or Afghanistan. When told by his youthful commanding officer to lower his standards of acceptance because military enlistments are down, Daniel balks and is promptly suspended for two weeks for insubordination. During his suspension, Daniel receives a call from Eddie O’Donoghue, now a special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), whom he first met in the early 1990s while Eddie was investigating Klara’s death. Based on a tip Daniel had given him about the fortune-teller, Eddie has been researching a Romani family involved in fortune-telling fraud. He shows Daniel pictures of suspects to see if he recognizes anyone from long ago. Among the mugshots is that of the old woman who predicted the Gold siblings’ deaths: her name is Bruna Costello. Daniel conducts further research and locates a possible spot in small-town Ohio where her twenty-year-old mobile home might be located. Just before the predicted date of his death, he collects his handgun and begins driving west, intending to confront the old woman.

The final part of the novel follows Varya Gold between 2006 and 2010. She is working with marmosets at the Drake Institute for Research on Aging in northern California. Over several days, Luke Van Galder, a young freelance writer, interviews Varya about her work, which is aimed at extending human longevity. During the course of the interview, details of her daily routine and life experiences are revealed, raising the issue of quality versus quantity of life. Luke asks Varya increasingly personal questions that distract her from her tasks. Overcome with suppressed emotions, she violates laboratory protocol, putting twenty years of research—and her career—in jeopardy.

The Immortalists is, at its core, the history of a family—a Jewish family, with unique, interesting individuals who exhibit a wide range of personal philosophies and different degrees of commitment to religious tenets and traditions—over a half-century. Members mature, drift apart, and gather periodically in sometimes warm, sometimes contentious reunions, just like real people. Besides an intricately plotted, unpredictable story that skillfully builds tension, the novel gives readers much to contemplate. With each section, Benjamin explores how the different characters react to knowing the date of their deaths and how they approach living with that knowledge. Overall, The Immortalists received a positive critical response, debuting in the top ten on the New York Times Best Sellers: Hardcover Fiction list. Multiple critics praised the depth and individuality of Benjamin’s characters, as well as the involved visuals used to create the settings and histories within the novel. Some critics, however, felt that Benjamin undertook too much, leaving the novel unbalanced and parts of the plot feeling forced.

Review Sources

  • Clark, Clare. “‘The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin Review—Is it Better to Know Your Own Fate?” Review of The Immortalists, by Chloe Benjamin. The Guardian, 30 Mar. 2018, www.theguardian.com/books/2018/mar/30/the-immortalists-by-chloe-benjamin-review. Accessed 20 Aug. 2018.
  • Duffy, Bob. “Book Review in Fiction: ‘The Immortalists: A Novel.’” Review of The Immortalists, by Chloe Benjamin. Washington Independent Review of Books, 16 Jan. 2018, www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/index.php/bookreview/the-immortalists-a-novel. Accessed 20 Aug. 2018.
  • Review of The Immortalists, by Chloe Benjamin. Publishers Weekly, 23 Dec. 2017. Literary Reference Center Plus, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lkh&AN=125843323&site=lrc-plus. 20 Oct. 2018.
  • Tsouderos, Trine. “‘The Immortalists’ by Chloe Benjamin: What Would You Do if You Knew When You Were Going to Die?” Review of The Immortalists, by Chloe Benjamin. Chicago Tribune, 12 Feb. 2018, www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/books/sc-books-immortalists-chloe-benjamin-0214-story.html. Accessed 20 Oct. 2018.
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