If you knew the hour of your death, would you live differently? This deeply existential question forms the basis of Chloe Benjamin’s New York Times-bestselling novel “The Immortalists,” a saga which follows the four Gold siblings from childhood, each of their respective paths carrying magic, love, mystery and science in tow. It’s a book that calls a reader to consider their own lives at every turn of the page. The Golds find themselves juggling both unfathomable tragedy and joy as time plugs onward. Benjamin’s writing ebbs and flows with it, creating believable and engaging settings in which the drama of life plays out across decades. Though these places are rich and enthralling, they never seem to overshadow the poignancy of Benjamin’s characters — the Golds’ history as a family is steeped in a sense of the unknown, something which ultimately propels them into the future.
The novel begins in late 1960s New York City, where the devoutly Jewish Gold family lives in a small apartment on the Lower East Side. The Golds — parents Saul and Gertie and children Varya, Daniel, Klara and Simon — live with both friction and admiration for each other, some closer than others but still a family nonetheless. Klara and Simon are inseparable, Daniel stony and adult and Varya withdrawn. The children hear of a travelling fortune teller who can predict when a person will die, and sneak out to find her — this is where the story truly starts, a point from which the Golds decide how their lives will truly be, based on the years they supposedly have left. For Simon, the youngest, it’s short, for Klara, somewhat longer, for Daniel, middle age but Varya is promised a long, long life. Benjamin’s expert fiction takes this sometimes-cliché storyline and uses it to create a meditation on fate and family, following each Gold from that fortune-teller’s home with their own death dates lodged into the children’s minds.
From there, the novel spirals into four distinct parts, each shadowing the Golds’ paths into the future with the knowledge of the past guiding them. Simon and Klara run off to San Francisco too young, Simon in search of a community that supports his budding gay identity and Klara following dreams of becoming a magician to end all magicians. Daniel becomes an army doctor, and Varya a medical researcher. In knowing their own mortality, life seems to have a bitter bite — each Gold child grapples with their fortune on a subconscious level, especially in the wake of each sibling’s predicted death.
As the decades pass, this fortune becomes even more abstract, as the remaining Golds try to understand the power of their knowledge and its influence over their realities. Benjamin’s strength is in this conflict, as she explores the meaning of life and death on a small scale, in the situations and histories which the Golds find themselves a part of. The existential questions posed throughout the novel are daunting, yes, but easier to consider in the scope of one family whom the reader comes to know quite well. In this, Benjamin gives us a gift — a way to think about the overwhelming darkness and lightness of life as applied to others, as the reader is on the outside looking in. While “The Immortalists” tackles different places, periods and social issues throughout the lifespans of its characters, the core question is never lost and instead fuels the story, making it one of the more engaging and emotionally poignant family sagas in recent years.