If some one offered to tell you the exact day you’re going to die, you’d probably think about it once or twice before accepting (or refusing). This quandary is what made The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin such a tempting read for book bloggers all over the world. That and the truly gorgeous book cover.
After reading the umpteenth positive early review online, I also succumbed to the urge to request it via Net Galley and I was… well, thoroughly underwhelmed. This is a perfectly valid novel that is a relatively interesting read but that just did not live up to the very high hype for me. But that’s the beauty of book blogging – for every book you disagree about with someone, there’s always another around the corner on which you’ll agree.
Publication Date: January 9th 2018
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Length in hardcover: 352 pages
Goodreads rating: 3.88
If you were told the date of your death, how would it shape your present? It’s 1969 in New York City’s Lower East Side, and word has spread of the arrival of a mystical woman, a traveling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die. The Gold children—four adolescents on the cusp of self-awareness—sneak out to hear their fortunes. Their prophecies inform their next five decades.The premise. When I read the plotline of The Immortalists, I thought it sounded like a really clever idea for a book. I’m intrigued by the concept of destiny versus free will and also am into family sagas involving multiple siblings whose lives are explored through the decades. I thought there was a lot of potential in the premise for a really poignant exploration of the meaning of life, death, mortality and fate, but I unfortunately felt that the execution fell short of what I was hoping for. The message of the book is very one-note, in that obvious and unremitting way that I’ve learned I don’t appreciate in a novel that I think aspires to be considered literary fiction. You can easily sump up the theme in one sentence – if you think you know the day of your death, you are doomed to careen towards it one disaster after another.
The writing. This was another brighter spot in the novel, though with alternating results between success and mediocrity. I felt that Benjamin’s writing often reached the complexity and beauty that I expect to see in works of literary fiction, with gorgeous descriptive and moving passages that made me think about the characters’ lives and their connection to my own. There were also times, unfortunately, when Benjamin’s writing slipped into overwrought territory, as if she was trying hard to be profound but failing. There were also sections of the book that felt slow. I didn’t skim any of it but sometimes I was tempted. Still, I think overall the writing was above average and made the reading experience more pleasurable despite the other aspects of the book that I didn’t really enjoy.
Very bleak. I think this was my biggest issue with the novel. I’m not one to shy away from books with heavy topics, and even extremely dark fiction. I recently read A Little Life by Hana Yanagihara and didn’t even cry while reading it (though many people have told me that they did). I don’t have an issue with plumbing the depths of human experience, as long as there is a valid counterpoint – a spot of light in the story that helps you feel the darkness as more realistic and emotional. Without any real spoilers, The Immortalists instead feels depressing in a way in which more nuanced and still serious fiction doesn’t. It essentially felt like the author was substituting meaning with bleakness in an attempt to touch her readers’ emotions by putting her characters unrelentingly through one dismal experience after the other.
Few redeeming qualities to main characters. All four of the siblings that are the protagonists of the novel (each one in turn) are extremely flawed people that were pretty hard to like or connect to for me. They’re regularly horrible to each other and people around them, are selfish and self-centered, and all around not easy to care about as a result. I think the issue for me was that in portraying them in this way, the author really added to the one-note tone of the book. There were a couple of portions of Simon and Varya’s stories where the characters felt more authentic and I was able to relate to these two siblings on a more significant level. The remainder of the time, however, I just felt like the siblings’ lives were kind of terrible but also that they had it coming to them (fortune teller or no fortune teller). And this is despite the fact that I’m generally an overly empathetic person.
I think ultimately this book hit a thoroughly mediocre note for me – it wasn’t bad but it also wasn’t really good, though I was definitely hoping it would be based on the buzz it received. I’m giving it 3 stars instead of 2 because I think many people will enjoy it more than I did.
Chloe Benjamin is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Immortalists, a #1 Indie Next Pick, #1 Library Reads pick, Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Selection, Amazon Best Book of the Month, and an iBooks Favorite.
Her first novel, The Anatomy of Dreams, received the Edna Ferber Fiction Book Award and was long listed for the 2014 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize.
Her novels have been translated into twenty-five languages. Originally from San Francisco, CA, Chloe is a graduate of Vassar College and the M.F.A. in fiction at the University of Wisconsin. She lives with her husband in Madison, WI.
Have you read The Immortalists? What did you think? Let me know in the comments.
You can also read my other recent Just Read reviews, including for nonfiction picks The Stowaway by Laurie Gwen Shapiro and Evicted by Matthew Desmond, Isabel Allende’s new novel In The Midst Of Winter, historical fiction novels Carnegie’s Maid by Marie Benedict, The Last Days Of Night by Graham Moore and The Rules Of Magic by Alice Hoffman, contemporary novel The Best Kind Of People by Zoe Whittall, and political memoir What Happened by Hillary Clinton.
Please note this post contains affiliate links from Book Depository. Thank you to Net Galley and the publisher for providing a copy of this title in exchange for an honest review.