Book review: ‘The Immortalists’
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2018
To describe Chloe Benjamin’s second novel, “The Immortalists,” as a story about the evolution of a family would be true, but wholly insignificant for the breadth and depth of this amazing work of fiction.
The story begins on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1969. The Gold siblings — two girls and two boys ranging in age from 7 to 13 — innocently make their way to a traveling gypsy soothsayer who predicts exact dates of death. Each child visits the woman separately, but they leave her apartment together — frightened, stunned silent and forever altered.
Benjamin unfurls a dense, yet beautifully spun and satisfying tale that spans 50 years and goes from New York to San Francisco and back. The children grow up and grow old; they find love and suffer loss; and, throughout the years, they live with the knowledge — true or not — of when they’ll die.
Eldest Varya becomes an obsessive-compulsive scientist with a secret. Physician Daniel clears recruits for military service. Klara plies her trade as a magician in Las Vegas and Simon explores his sexuality in San Francisco.
Each sibling, as well as family matriarch Gertie, receives equally surefooted literary treatment in Benjamin’s capable hands. Her spare, yet gorgeously robust prose belies her youth (Benjamin graduated from Vassar College in 2010), and every page is imbued with her obvious storytelling skill.
Near the end of “The Immortalists,” Varya sums it up well: “Stories did have the power to change things: the past and the future, even the present. … The power of words. They weaseled under door cracks and through keyholes. They hooked into individuals and wormed through generations.”
Begin 2018 with the book that could easily retain the year’s top spot, “The Immortalists” is a can’t-put-down, makes-you-think tale of a not-so-average American family.