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.