“I wanted to do something good. So I think, Okay: What do nurses do? They help people, people who suffer. Why do they suffer? ‘Cause they don’t know what’s gonna happen to them. So what if I can take that away? If they have answers, they’ll be free, is what I thought. If they know when they’ll die, they can live.”
Would you want to know the exact date of your death? It’s a heady thing to think about, isn’t it? And say you did find out. What would you do with the information? Would you even believe it? That is some of the things to think about while reading “The Immortalists,” by Chloe Benjamin.
The story begins in the summer of 1969 when 11-year-old Daniel Gold hears about a woman who has the power to tell you the exact date of your death. He convinces the rest of his siblings – practical Varya, dreamy Klara and trusting Simon – they should find her. So they find her. And she tells them.
Fast forward to 1978 when the children are reunited after their father passes away. It makes sense they talk about the gypsy’s predictions as they come to grips with their father’s death. At this stage they still possess their sibling bond but with Varya and Daniel in college and on the path to adulthood, you can sense the group is about to splinter physically and emotionally. It starts with Simon and Klara.
The youngest and still living at home, Klara and Simon are the most intertwined but not necessarily in a good way. Klara convinces 16-year-old Simon to move to San Francisco. Immature and self-absorbed, they both eke out a living on the fringes of society. Simon throws his life away with dangerous liaisons in the gay community of San Francisco in early ‘80s, and Klara lives a nomadic magician’s life by performing tricks and being a small time pick pocket. I felt Benjamin wasted Simon’s chapters on graphic descriptions instead of telling us more about his psyche. I’m not sure I believe that Simon was randomly promiscuous to fulfill his death date since AIDS didn’t even have a name and men didn’t start dying until after Simon started cheating. Would he have had that same mindset had he not followed Klara to San Francisco? And would he have been more responsible had his death date been different? But still, Simon did live his life authentically – something he argued would not have happened had he not been told of his death.
Klara’s whole story line made the most sense as she remained the same from the first page of the book. Dreamy and other-worldly, Klara just wanted to be a magician. She ended up being more of a gypsy than the woman who predicted their death. She wasn’t a very good sister or role model to Simon, and she really bought into the whole magician-spirit world thing. But “she was who she was” so the date of her death was more ordained than predicted.
Daniel’s life made the least sense to me. As a military doctor, Daniel would examine young men and decide whether they had the physical and mental qualifications to enter the military. He literally felt he was sending young men to their death (or giving them a reprieve) based on those qualifications. Maybe he felt compelled to take that job as he blamed himself for the Golds’ ill-fated trip to the old woman and everything that came afterwards. And maybe the stress of those two things drove him to research the woman. I had a hard time buying it. He seemed so normal to make such a rash decision.
Then we are left with Varya, a scientist studying longevity through primate research. She is keeping herself alive to fulfill the prophecy but is barely alive at all. An encounter with someone she never thought to connect with again upends her carefully planned world and finally, we feel that one of the Gold’s may have decided to step out of the shadow of their death prediction. The symbolism between Varya and Frida, the rhesus monkey integral to her research, is glaringly obvious but it’s also gratifying.
I can’t say that the “The Immortalists” truly grapples with the larger question of what you would do with your life if you knew the exact date of your death. What it does show is how much that information can mess up your life. But is having an exact date any different than the sayings that bombard us today? You know, the ones that tell me to “live like there’s no tomorrow” because “the future is promised to no one,” so “don’t wait to use the good china” because “you never know when it will be all gone.” It’s still the same message. So tonight I’m going to eat dessert first. Because some things should never be left to chance.
As always, thank you for your time!
Lynn Alexander is a recently published author and long-time book, food, cat and college football lover (Go Green!). Her career journey started in upstate New York, writing and recording commercials for radio. She moved to Venice, Florida to manage a restaurant which led her to Naples and Marco in 2002, where she currently books weddings and events for a local resort. Alexander is a Leadership Marco 2015 alum which fed her passion for history and learning. A butterfly at parties but a loner at heart, she loves nothing more than baking yummy desserts then retreating to a quiet corner to read.