It’s the end of the world as we know it

Author: Chloe Benjamin

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin coverBefore you open Chloe Benjamin’s second novel, The Immortalists, take a long, deep inhale. Because once you get sucked into her vast and urgent story, you will not want to pause for any reason—let alone breathing.

The prologue of this gorgeously written book opens in New York City’s Lower East Side. It’s the summer of 1969, and the Gold siblings—Varya, Daniel, Klara and Simon—are paying a visit to a shadowy woman rumored to be a psychic. What starts as an excursion to dodge their chores at home shifts into something more ominous when, one at a time, in the humid gloom of her tiny apartment, the psychic tells each of them the day they will die.

Acquiring this knowledge—they all accept or reject it to varying, alarming degrees—signifies the impending end of the Golds’ innocence: “They are siblings… in a way they will never be again… They are still a unit, yoked as if it isn’t possible to be anything but.” Ultimately, the psychic’s prophecies worm their way into the fabric of the family and shatter the foursome.

Following the prologue, the novel is separated into four parts, each centered on a sibling. The actions and voices of the Gold children—now adults—are so vivid that Benjamin succeeds in giving the reader four complete novels in one. Their stories are unusual and absorbing: Simon becomes a dancer, Klara pursues her obsession with magic, Daniel works as an army physician, and Varya conducts research on primates. Separated by years and miles, they end up in vastly different places, tending to their own loves and sorrows. “They began together: before any of them were people, they were eggs, four out of their mother’s millions. Astonishing, that they could diverge so dramatically in their temperaments, their fatal flaws—like strangers caught for seconds in the same elevator.”

Yet for all their dissimilarities, Varya, Daniel, Klara and Simon are forever linked by both the siren song of family and the psychic’s foretelling. As their lives unfold, her predictions murmur incessantly in their ears, challenging, pushing, even destroying them. Accordingly, they all battle with feelings of uncertainty, clinging to whatever seems to give them a sense of control—religion, alcohol, work, sex. These fixations become their “glue of reality, the putty that fills the holes between everything we know to be true.”

Yes, there is tragedy in The Immortalists, but there’s also tenderness and redemption and a rich plotline that takes the reader across the country, from San Francisco to Las Vegas to Chicago. There is so much pulsing, shimmering life on every page that it’s a mystery how Benjamin, at age 28, has such a deep understanding of the world. She plumbs countless subjects—ballet, mental illness, Judaism, HIV and monkeys, to name a few—with a grace and authority far beyond her years.

Savor every word of this ambitious, abundant novel. It is one I didn’t want to come to an end—even if it was nice being able to breath again.

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Laura Bird