book review: The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

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THE IMMORTALISTS by Chloe Benjamin
★★★☆☆
Putnam, January 9, 2018

 

I’m so conflicted about The Immortalists. On the one hand, it was compulsively readable and at times rather hard-hitting, and on the other, I found the effort as a whole rather trite. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t particularly striking or memorable.

In the novel’s prologue, in 1969 New York, the Gold siblings – Varya, Daniel, Klara, and Simon – visit a Romani fortune teller, who tells each of them the date they’re going to die. The Immortalists is told in four sections, one for each of the siblings, and one by one, we see a snapshot of each of their lives, ending in each of their deaths.

It’s a chilling and intriguing premise, but Chloe Benjamin doesn’t really do a whole lot with it. My problem with this book is that it was just so… obvious? Imagine you’re told beyond a shadow of a doubt that you’re going to die young. You’ll probably shape your life decisions around the short-term, and live in the present, and these are the very careless actions that will probably end your life. This is the premise of the book, and each of the Gold siblings’ fates unfolds in a similarly straightforward manner. I really wanted something more, I wanted Benjamin to dig in a bit further, to explore this theme from a less obvious vantage point. But I ultimately didn’t get much more out of this book than if I’d stuck to reading its summary.

As a whole, the four sections are rather well balanced. I think everyone is going to have a preference for which sibling’s story they prefer, but each is similarly well-researched, and I don’t think there’s a clear objective frontrunner, or one that’s notably weaker than the others, which is a good thing for a novel of this format. Unfortunately I did find that each of the sections suffered from the same issues – unclear timeline, emotionally manipulative plot points, the role of certain characters being ridiculously contrived (notably Eddie).

Though this book is relentlessly depressing, the only part I found viscerally difficult to read was Varya’s section, and the descriptions of the experiments Varya’s lab conducts on primates. Though it was a comparatively small part of the book (if each of the siblings’ sections comprises 25% of the book, the plight of Frida the monkey is only about 25% of that 25%), I found myself so upset by this one scene that I almost regretted reading this book at all. Thankfully Chloe Benjamin acknowledges her passion for the welfare of primates who have been used for lab research in her afterward, but animal lovers, approach this section with caution.

I have no doubt that many others will love this book, but I can’t help but to be somewhat underwhelmed. One last thought – maybe people with siblings will feel a stronger connection to this story than I did?

Thank you to Netgalley, Putnam, and Chloe Benjamin for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

15 thoughts on “book review: The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

  1. Great review! I’m very intrigued to see how I get on with this. I feel like because I’m invariably slow at getting to new/upcoming releases by comparison, your reviews are a great way for me to know when to get hyped and when to keep my expectations in check 😂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m looking forward to your review!

      This book is totally different, but did you read Commonwealth by Ann Patchett? That’s the only book I can think of other than The Immortalists where I felt like my being an only child really prevented me from connecting with it… It’s strange, I usually enjoy stories about siblings as much as any other kind of story, but sometimes they just don’t click with me? I’ll be curious to read your perspective on it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I haven’t read Commonwealth yet – it’s somewhere in the big pile of books I wanted to get to this year.
        I have never thought about how me having siblings changes the way I read stories – but I have a “sibling stories are the best stories” tag so obviously its a theme I enjoy. Plus, I read The Immortalists while on holiday with my older sister, so this might have influenced my feelings as well. I will really have to think about this.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I think it definitely depends on the narrative for me – there are plenty of sibling stories I love, and I am really interested in sibling dynamics, but I feel like there needs to be SOMETHING else in the story for me to be able to connect to? Commonwealth especially – that whole book is just about having a big family, and I have the smallest family in the world (no siblings, no living grandparents, and the only extended family I talk to is ONE aunt, so it’s basically just me and my parents), so I was just reading it like… ok, this is objectively well done but it is really doing nothing for me?? And I think The Immortalists was similar – since the fortune telling element sort of took a backseat and the family relationships were at the forefront, I just felt like I was the wrong audience for the story. Anyway, I’ll go check out your review now!

        Liked by 1 person

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