The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  352

Published:  January 9, 2018

Format:  E-book from Netgalley

 

 

 

 

I absolutely loved this book!  It was incredibly well written and forces the reader to ask important questions of themselves.  It is a wonderful exploration of mortality what comprises a good life or a life well lived.  Most of all, it was simply a delicious read… a book that pulls you in and unravels beautifully.

The premise is that 4 siblings living in New York City in 1969, aged 7,9, 11 and 13, set out to visit a psychic to learn their futures.  They enter her apartment one at a time and are each told the date of their death.  They do not share this information with each until about a decade later when they are all up on the rooftop of their home chatting one night, while home for their father’s funeral.  The only one who does not share his death date is Simon, the youngest, who simply says “young.”  From here, the book tells the story of the life lived by each sibling in chronological order of death dates.  Unbeknownst to them, this marks the last time the four of them are all together.

Simon’s story is first.  Klara, the only family member recognizing that Simon is gay, invites Simon to run away with her to San Francisco the following morning.  Simon does and embraces the freedom to be openly gay, practice ballet and sleep around.    He does enter into a serious relationship with Robert, a handsome dancer.  However, Simon feels that he is not meant to have the life with a career, house and partner.    “If the prophecy is a ball, his belief is its chain;  it is the voice in his head that says Hurry, says Faster, says Run.”   Just when he seems to have accepted that he might deserve love, Simon dies of AIDS before AIDS even has a name.  He has lived life fully and sometimes recklessly.  He has run away from home without finishing high school.  He hasn’t seen any of his family members in all the years he was in San Francisco, aside from Klara.  Has the knowledge of his death date forced him to live recklessly and hard, to take chances?  Or have these things just led to early death?

Klara’s story follows.  Klara, named after her maternal grandmother, has been obsessed with magic from a young age, having looked up admiringly at the life of this woman (her namesake) who had performed the “jaws of life” through Times Square.  It is a death defying act where she would slide from the top of a circus tent to the bottom suspended only from a rope that she holds in her teeth.  Klara begins performing her own act in San Francisco and calls it “The Immortalist.”  Klara ends up marrying Raj and has a daughter.  As Raj takes more and more control over the act and the magic, Klara slips more and more away and into alcohol.  Klara has always believed in the magic.  She begins to believe in the reality of it as well.  She hears Simon and Saul talking to her through raps in the floorboards.  She produces a strawberry during a magic trick that she hadn’t expected herself.  Her magic is her religion.  The reason she practices magic is the same reason a rabbi practices Judaism:  to give people faith.  “Klara has always known she’s meant to be a bridge: between reality and illusion, the present and the past, this world and the next.  She just has to figure out how.”  She feels that she must prove that the old woman’s prophecies were correct.  In taking her own life, does she accomplish this?

Daniel is an atheist because of the old woman.  He feels angry and ashamed.  He has vowed that no one could have so much power over him, whether it’s a person or a deity.  Daniel feels wounded and bitter over the drift of family.  He is married, childless, and recently suspended from his job when he invites Raj and his daughter to visit them over Thanksgiving.  Daniel’s job has been working for the military deciding which men are fit to go into combat.  Daniel and Raj end up fighting bitterly criticizing either other deeply.  He, like Klara, begins drinking more.  He becomes obsessed with old woman as the date of his death approaches.  Upon learning that the FBI has stopped their pursuit of her, he pursues her himself.

Finally, Varya who has been granted the longest life, has devoted her life to her career which focuses on aging and longevity.  Varya worries that her primary motivation is fear.  “Fear that she had no control, that life slipped through one’s fingers no matter what.  Fear that Simon and Klara and Daniel, had, at least, lived in the world, while Varya lived in her research, in her books, in her head.”  She works with primates and part of the research is to show that by restricting  food, the monkeys they will live longer.  The monkeys are stressed, emaciated and now self-harming.  A young journalist, named Luke, has been granted the rare opportunity to interview and follow Varya over the course of a week to learn more about the research in this highly secure facility.  At the end of the week, Luke finally reveals to Varya that he is not a journalist, but works at Sports Basement in retail.  He is her biological son, the one she gave up for adoption after a brief affair with her professor in college.  Varya is forced to re-examine her life.  She connects with Robert, Simon’s parter.  She admits to Gertie the story of the fortune teller.   She finally comes to accept her own mortality.

Intelligent, moving, magical and lovely… there is just so much to enjoy within this book.  The premise is awesome.   The writing is excellent.  This is a book full of characters to love, empathize with and worry about.  It brings up all kinds of questions for the reader, making it an excellent book club book.

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Discuss the title and it’s meaning/s in the novel.  Consider the Immortalists Jews, the Roms, Klara’s act and the characters themselves.  Do the characters wish to be mortal or immortal?
  2. How does knowing the date of their death affect the way they live?
  3. Daniel feels that the woman who gave the children their dates of death should be punished.  Why do you think he feels so strongly about this?   Does he believe her?
  4. Is it human nature to assume we will live a long life until faced with a life threatening diagnosis?  Does not knowing the date of our death confer a certain momentary immortality?
  5. Eddie O’Donoghue is like a thin thread that weaves through the siblings’ stories linking them together in some way.  Discuss the significance of this character and what he adds to the novel.
  6. When Daniel is researching the Roms, he writes down two proverbs: “our language is our strength” and “thoughts have wings.”  Why?
  7. Raj argues that magicians are analysts.  Klara tried to reveal some greater truth through her magic.  Discuss the contrast between these two ideologies, how it affected their marriage and lives.
  8. What is the relationship like between Raj and Ruby?  Does Ruby seem more like her mother or her father?
  9. Ruby develops a closeness with Gertie.  Why do you think she does this?
  10. The children are afraid all their lives to share their visit to the old woman with their mother Gertie.  When Varya finally tells Gertie about the visit, how does she respond?  Did this surprise you?  Do you think that hearing such a prediction in childhood versus adulthood would affect the person differently?  In other words, do you think that because they were children they gave this old woman’s words more credence?
  11. Do you think the old woman’s predictions were accurate or that the siblings’ reactions to the predictions made them accurate?
  12. Would you want to know the date of your death?  Why or why not?
  13. How do you think that knowing the date of your death would affect the way you lived?
  14. The children having grown up in a very religious household each abandoned religion.  Why?
  15. Do you feel that the old woman was doing a magic trick in giving the children their dates of death or was their some real  truth and foresight to her predictions?

Chloe Benjamin’s website

Review by Jean Zimmerman on NPR

LitLovers Discussion Questions

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