If you could know the exact day of your death, would you want to find out? If you did find out, how would you let that information affect your life? These questions are at the heart of The Immortalists, Chloe Benjamin’s deeply affecting and beautifully written book.
In 1969, four siblings who grew up on New York’s Lower East Side, learn that there is a travelling fortune teller in their neighbourhood who can tell anyone the day they will die. While not many people believe the magician’s words to be true, the four children — Varya, Daniel, Klara, and Simon—decide to find out.
What the woman tells each of them that day greatly affects their lives throughout the plot. Klara, who herself wants nothing more than to become a magician, feels stuck at New York with her strict family who does not believe in magic. Soon enough, she, alongside her brother Simon, flees to San Francisco after Klara graduates from high school. Simon, on the other hand, knows he is different and dreams that San Francisco will be the place where he can finally be free to be who he is, to find love according to his own desires.
Klara watches as her brother pursues his life while she wants to pursue her dreams as well. However, as Simon is often reckless with his life’s choices, she knows she must be the stable one for him. As both are driven by the fortune teller’s prophesy, they become curious to take chances they might not otherwise pursue, to truly live their short lives to their fullest. And when Klara finally meets someone who can help take her to the world of magic and sorcery, she envisions bringing her illusions and tricks to her own audience who appreciates her, no matter what it costs her.
And with that comes my favourite quote of the book: “Some magicians say that magic shatters your worldview. But I think magic holds the world together. It’s dark matter; it’s the glue of reality, the putty that fills the holes between everything we know to be true. And it takes magic to reveal how inadequate reality is.“
Meanwhile, Daniel and Varya lead a completely different life. They both are angry and envious that their younger siblings left them responsible for their aging, widowed mother. Also, unlike Klara and Simon, they try not to focus on whether what the fortune teller told them will come true. They also pursue more grounded, stable careers than Klara and Simon—Daniel as a military doctor responsible for determining which soldiers are healthy enough to go to war, and Varya as a researcher determined to find the secrets of longevity. But each have secrets of their own, as well as the shared secrets which cause them increasing fear, anxiety, and guilt.
The Immortalists is a fascinating book, one which was both surprising and intriguing. Benjamin is a fantastic storyteller, and she has created a tremendously thought-provoking book. Is our destiny really predetermined, or do we have the power to alter what is destined? Does the idea of knowing how long your life might last encourage you to live it to the fullest, or does it instead fill you with more fear and dread than the unknown would? If these questions often wander in your mind, then this book is highly recommended for you.
The writer is a part of the TDA Editorial Team.