How would you live your life if you knew when you were going to die?
That’s the high-concept idea behind Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists, which opens in 1969 Brooklyn with the four Gold children, aged 7 to 13, visiting a fortune teller who gives each the exact date of his or her death. Three of the four are upset by their predictions, and each reacts differently in the following years.
Simon leaves home at 16 and follows his sister to San Francisco where he can finally be himself but devastating his mother and alienating his other siblings in the process. Klara grieves by pouring herself into her lifelong passion of stage magic, eventually landing in Las Vegas for one last shot at stardom. Daniel makes good on his promise to become an army doctor, but as he approaches middle age, his career and mental health begin to falter. Varya, the oldest, goes into anti-aging research in a quest to help people live longer but discovers that longer doesn’t necessarily mean better. Each of the Gold children’s lives is a reaction to the fortune teller’s prediction, but are they doomed to their fates or simply moved by the power of suggestion?
This book was like a slow-motion train wreck. I enjoyed the section about Simon in late 70’s/early 80’s San Francisco, but I always have a soft spot for an AIDS story. But as we move on to the remaining siblings, their stories grow more and more outlandish, the characters more and more unlikable, their decisions more and more inexplicable. And most of these characters are deeply unlikable — selfish, deceitful, uncommunicative — yet they’re also underdeveloped. Benjamin spends so much time explaining what her characters think that she fails to make them full human beings, so when they make stupid choices — and they all make some really stupid choices — it seems more in service to a pre-determined plot outline than what each character would naturally do in those situations.
One last complaint, and this is a huge pet peeve of mine. Benjamin throws in a couple of “twists”, by which I mean she uses questionable rhetorical misdirection followed later by gotcha! made ya look! The surprises are cheap and unearned and would have been completely unnecessary if she had simply developed vivid characters and told a compelling story. This book had lots of potential, and I know it’s made a lot of critics’ and readers’ best-of-2018 lists, but it just didn’t work for me, not as a work of fiction and not as thought experiment.