The Immortalists

The Immortalists

by Chloe Benjamin


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“A captivating family saga.”—The New York Times Book Review

“This literary family saga is perfect for fans of Celeste Ng and Donna Tartt.”—People Magazine (Book of the Week)

If you knew the date of your death, how would you live your life?

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.

The prophecies inform their next five decades. Golden-boy Simon escapes to the West Coast, searching for love in '80s San Francisco; dreamy Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician, obsessed with blurring reality and fantasy; eldest son Daniel seeks security as an army doctor post-9/11; and bookish Varya throws herself into longevity research, where she tests the boundary between science and immortality.

A sweeping novel of remarkable ambition and depth, The Immortalists probes the line between destiny and choice, reality and illusion, this world and the next. It is a deeply moving testament to the power of story, the nature of belief, and the unrelenting pull of familial bonds.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780735213180
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/09/2018
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 6,570
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Chloe Benjamin is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Immortalists. 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. She 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.

Read an Excerpt

Varya drives down from college at Vassar, Daniel from SUNY Binghamton. None of them understand it. Yes, Saul was stressed, but the city’s worst moments—the fiscal crisis, the blackout—are finally behind them. The unions saved the city from bankruptcy, and New York is finally looking up. At the hospital, Varya asks about her father’s last moments. Had he been in any pain? Only briefly, says the nurse. Did he speak? No one can say that he did. This should not surprise his wife and children, who are used to his long silences—and yet Simon feels cheated, robbed of a final memory of his father, who remains as close-lipped in death as he was in life.

Because the next day is Shabbat, the funeral takes place on Sunday. They meet at Congregation Tifereth Israel, the conservative synagogue of which Saul was a member and patron. In the entryway, Rabbi Chaim gives each Gold a pair of scissors for the kriah.

“No. I won’t do it,” says Gertie, who must be walked through each step of the funeral as if through the customs process of a country she never meant to visit. She wears a sheath dress that Saul made for her in 1962: sturdy black cotton, with a dart-fitted waistline, front button closure, and detachable belt. “You can’t make me,” she adds, her eyes darting between Rabbi Chaim and her children, who have all obediently slit their clothes above the heart, and though Rabbi Chaim explains that it is not he who can make her but God, it seems that God can’t, either. In the end, the rabbi gives Gertie a black ribbon to cut, and she takes her seat with wounded victory.

Simon has never liked coming here. As a child, he thought the synagogue was haunted, with its rough, dark stone and dank interior. Worse were the services: the unending silent devotion, the fervent pleas for the restoration of Zion. Now Simon stands before the closed casket, air ­circulating through the slit in his shirt, and realizes he’ll never see his ­father’s face again. He pictures Saul’s distant eyes and demure, almost feminine smile. Rabbi Chaim calls Saul magnanimous, a person of character and fortitude, but to Simon he was a decorous, timid man who skirted conflict and trouble—a man who seemed to do so little out of passion that it was a wonder he had ever married Gertie, for no one would have viewed Simon’s mother, with her ambition and pendulum moods, as a pragmatic choice.

After the service, they follow the pallbearers to Mount Hebron Cemetery, where Saul’s parents were buried. Both girls are weeping—Varya silently, Klara as loudly as her mother—and Daniel seems to be holding himself together out of nothing more than stunned obligation. But Simon finds himself unable to cry, even as the casket is lowered into the earth. He feels only loss, not of the father he knew but of the person that Saul might have been. At dinner, they sat at opposite ends of the table, lost in private thought. The shock came when one of them glanced up, and their eyes caught—an accident, but one that joined their separate worlds like a hinge before someone looked away again.

Now, there is no hinge. Distant though he was, Saul had allowed each Gold to assume their separate roles: he the breadwinner, Gertie the general, Varya the obedient oldest, Simon the unburdened youngest. If their father’s body—his cholesterol lower than Gertie’s, his heart nothing if not steady—had simply stopped, what else could go wrong? Which other laws might warp? Varya hides in her bunk. Daniel is twenty, barely a man, but he greets guests and lays out food, leads prayers in Hebrew. Klara, whose portion of the bedroom is messier than everyone else’s, scrubs the kitchen until her biceps hurt. And Simon takes care of Gertie.

This is not their usual arrangement, for Gertie has always babied Simon more than the others. She wanted, once, to be an intellectual; she lay beside the fountain in Washington Square Park reading Kafka and Nietzsche and Proust. But at nineteen, she met Saul, who had joined his father’s business after high school, and she was pregnant by twenty. Soon Gertie withdrew from New York University, where she was on scholarship, and moved into an apartment mere blocks from Gold’s Tailor and Dressmaking, which Saul would inherit when his parents retired to Kew Gardens Hills.

Shortly after Varya was born—far sooner than Saul thought necessary, and to his embarrassment—Gertie became the receptionist at a law firm. At night, she was still their formidable captain. But in the morning, she put on a dress and applied rouge from a little round box before depositing the children at Mrs. Almendinger’s, after which she exited the building with as much lightness as she had ever been capable. When Simon was born, though, Gertie stayed home for nine months instead of five, which turned into eighteen. She carried him everywhere. When he cried, she did not respond with bullish frustration but nuzzled him and sang, as if nostalgic for an experience she had always resented because she knew she would not repeat it. Shortly after Simon’s birth, while Saul was at work, she went to the doctor’s office and returned with a small glass pill bottle—Enovid, it readthat she kept in the back of her underwear drawer.

“Si-mon!” she calls now, in a rich long blast like a foghorn’s. “Hand me that,” she might say, lying in bed and pointing to a pillow just past her feet. Or, in a low, ominous tone: “I have a sore; I’ve been lying too long in this bed,” and though Simon internally recoils, he examines the thick wedge of her heel. “That isn’t a sore, Ma,” he replies. “It’s a blister.” But by then she has moved on, asking him to bring her the Kaddish, or fish and chocolate from the shiva platter delivered by Rabbi Chaim.

Simon might think Gertie takes pleasure in commanding him, if not for the way she weeps at night—snuffled, so her children don’t hear, though Simon does—or the times he sees her curled fetal on the bed she shared with Saul for two decades, looking like the teenager she was when she met him. She sits shiva with a devoutness Simon did not know she could muster, for Gertie has always believed in superstition more than any God. She spits three times when a funeral goes by, throws salt if the shaker falls over, and never passed a cemetery while pregnant, which required the family to endure constant rerouting between 1956 and 1962. Each Friday, she observes the Sabbath with effortful patience, as if the Sabbath is a guest she can’t wait to get rid of. But this week, she wears no makeup. She avoids jewelry and leather shoes. As if in penitence for the failed kriah, she wears her black sheath day and night, ­ignoring the crust of brisket drippings on one thigh. Because the Golds own no wooden stools, she sits on the floor to recite the Kaddish and even tries to read the book of Job, squinting as she holds the Tanakh up to her face. When she sets it down, she appears wild-eyed and lost, like a child in search of her own parents, and then comes the call—“Si-mon!”—for something tangible: fresh fruit or pound cake, a window opened for air or closed against draft, a blanket, a washcloth, a candle.

When enough guests have assembled for a minyan, Simon helps her into a new dress and house slippers, and she emerges to pray. They’re joined by Saul’s longtime employees: the bookkeepers; the seamstresses; the pattern makers; the salesmen; and Saul’s junior partner, Arthur ­Milavetz, a reedy, beakish man of thirty-two.

As a child, Simon loved to visit his father’s shop. The bookkeepers gave him paper clips to play with, or pieces of scrap fabric, and Simon was proud to be Saul’s son—it was clear, by the reverence with which the staff treated him and by his large windowed office, that he was someone important. He bounced Simon on one knee as he demonstrated how to cut patterns and sew samples. Later, Simon accompanied him to fabric houses, where Saul selected the silks and tweeds that would be fashionable next season, and to Saks Fifth Avenue, whose latest styles he purchased to make knockoffs at the shop. After work, Simon was allowed to stay while the men played hearts or sat in Saul’s office with a box of cigars, debating the teachers’ strike and the sanitation strike, the Suez Canal and the Yom Kippur War.

All the while, something loomed larger, closer, until Simon was forced to see it in all its terrible majesty: his future. Daniel had always planned to be a doctor, which left one son—Simon, impatient and uncomfortable in his skin, let alone in a double-breasted suit. By the time he was a teenager, the women’s clothing bored him and the wools made him itch. He resented the tenuousness of Saul’s attention, which he sensed would not last his departure from the business, if such a thing were even possible. He bristled at Arthur, who was always at his father’s side, and who treated Simon like a helpful little dog. Most of all, he felt something far more confusing: that the shop was Saul’s true home, and that his employees knew him better than his children ever did.

Today, Arthur brings three deli platters and a tray of smoked fish. He bends his long, swanlike neck to kiss Gertie’s cheek.

“What will we do, Arthur?” she asks, her mouth in his coat.

“It’s terrible,” he says. “It’s horrific.”

Tiny droplets of spring rain perch on Arthur’s shoulders and on the lenses of his horn-rimmed glasses, but his eyes are sharp.

“Thank God for you. And for Simon,” Gertie says.

On the last night of shiva, while Gertie sleeps, the siblings take to the attic. They’re worn down, washed out, with bleary, baggy eyes and curdled stomachs. The shock hasn’t faded; Simon cannot imagine it ever fading. Daniel and Varya sit on an orange velvet couch, stuffing spurting from the armrests. Klara takes the patchwork ottoman that once belonged to now-dead Mrs. Blumenstein. She pours bourbon into four chipped teacups. Simon hunches cross-legged on the floor, swirling the amber liquid with his finger.

“So, what’s the plan?” he asks, glancing at Daniel and Varya. “You’re heading out tomorrow?”

Daniel nods. He and Varya will catch early trains back to school. They’ve already said goodbye to Gertie and promised to return in a month, when their exams are finished.

“I can’t take any more time off if I’m going to pass,” Daniel says. “Some of us”—he nudges Klara with his foot—“worry about that sort of thing.”

Klara’s senior year ends in two weeks, but she’s already told her family she won’t walk at graduation. (“All those penguins, shuffling around in unison? It’s not me.”) Varya is studying biology and Daniel hopes to be a military doctor, but Klara doesn’t want to go to college. She wants to do magic.

She’s spent the past nine years under the tutelage of Ilya Hlavacek, an aging vaudevillian and sleight-of-hand magician who is also her boss at Ilya’s Magic & Co. Klara first learned of the shop at the age of nine, when she purchased The Book of Divination from Ilya; now, he is as much a father to her as Saul was. A Czech immigrant who came of age between the World Wars, Ilya—seventy-nine, stooped and arthritic, with a troll’s tuft of white hair—tells fantastic tales of his stage years: one he spent touring the Midwest’s grimiest dime museums, his card table mere feet from rows of pickled human heads; the Pennsylvania circus tent in which he successfully vanished a brown Sicilian donkey named Antonio as one thousand onlookers burst with applause.

But over a century has passed since the Davenport brothers invoked spirits in the salons of the wealthy and John Nevil Maskelyne made a woman levitate in London’s Egyptian Theatre. Today, the luckiest of America’s magicians manage theatrical special effects or work elaborate shows in Las Vegas. Almost all of them are men. When Klara visited Marinka’s, the oldest magic shop in the country, the young man at the register glanced up with disdain before directing her to a bookshelf marked Witchcraft. (“Bastard,” Klara muttered, though she did buy Demonology: The Blood Summonings just to watch him squirm.)

Besides, Klara is drawn less to stage magicians—the bright lights and evening clothes, the wire-rigged levitations—than to those who ­perform in more modest venues, where magic is handed from person to person like a crumpled dollar bill. On Sundays, she watches the street magician Jeff Sheridan at his usual post by the Sir Walter Scott statue in Central Park. But could she really make a living that way? New York is changing, anyway. In her neighborhood, the hippies have been replaced by hard-core kids, the drugs by harder drugs. Puerto Rican gangs hold court at Twelfth and A. Once, Klara was held up by men who probably would have done worse if Daniel had not happened to walk by at exactly that moment.

Varya ashes into an empty teacup. “I can’t believe you’re still going to leave. With Ma like this.”

“That was always the plan, Varya. I was always going to leave.”

“Well, sometimes plans change. Sometimes they have to.”

Klara raises an eyebrow. “So why don’t you change yours?”

“I can’t. I have exams.”

Varya’s hands are rigid, her back straight. She has always been uncompromising, sanctimonious, someone who walks between the lines as if on a balance beam. On her fourteenth birthday, she blew out all but three candles, and Simon, just eight, stood on his tiptoes to do the rest. Varya yelled at him and cried so intensely that even Saul and Gertie were puzzled. She has none of Klara’s beauty, no interest in clothing or makeup. Her one indulgence is her hair. It is waist length and has never been colored or dyed, not because Varya’s natural color—the dusty, light brown of dirt in summer—is in any way remarkable; she simply prefers it as it has always been. Klara dyes her hair a vivid, drugstore red. Whenever she does her roots, the sink looks bloody for days.


Excerpted from "The Immortalists"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Chloe Benjamin.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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The Immortalists 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 65 reviews.
Bookaholic_Cindy More than 1 year ago
I don't usually talk about the story much when reviewing since the book blurb covers it. But this book deserves more than just I liked it, why I did, why I disliked it, etc. I saw quite a few DNF and 1 star reviews because of a portion of the book. One section doesn't make a book! It entitles the entire novel. What if you were a child in 1969 and went to a fortune teller who told you the date of your death? How would it affect your life? This is what the four Gold children do and we follow them through the years after this incident. The two youngest, Simon and Kharla, leave for San Francisco before Simon is of legal age to follow their dreams. Warning: if gay sex scenes bother you, remember this is when the Aids epidemic first began and Simon is gay. Don't give up on the book because of that! We follow both of their experiences, Simon as a club dancer and Kharla as a magician. While the two older siblings are back at home with their mother, leading more ordinary lives than their siblings. But are they really just ordinary lives? Once told the date of your death, would you ever forget it? When I first started the book, honestly, I wondered if the whole book was filled with sex scenes. And that is why I would hate for someone to miss out on such an interesting novel because of that. But as the book progressed with each family member, it told each of their stories. I have to say, I truly enjoyed this book and thought the author did an excellent job at character development! You'll grow attached to the Gold family and after my iffy beginning, I grew to love Simon the best. Not everyone will agree with me, but that's why we write these reviews. And this is my opinion. I found this to be a touching story of the lives of 4 children growing up and how different, yet the same we all are. My thanks to the author for starting my year off with such a well written novel. * I was provided an ARC to read from the publisher and NetGalley. It was my decision to read and review this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is not an uplifting read. Overrated.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A bit contrived, but it did show the power of self-fulfilling prophecies. Ending was a bit abrupt.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am very glad that I read this book! It was extremely thought provoking. The character & plot development was excellent. I loved the historical throwback as well.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Like how the story tells about each sibling but that it all comes back together at the end. Wasn’t thrilled with the ending tho.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was so good. The relationship the children have and how it changes after they meet the old woman, it's such a change. And knowing when you will die is not always good and not always bad. Great story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I liked the siblings & the style of writing, but after reading the stories of two of them and part of the third, I told myself that I should stop -- too depressing. I encourage the author to continue writing (she is talented) but to provide more hope interwoven with the sadness -- or even a whole lot of happiness if it can be worked into the tale. Sadness for its own sake is off-putting.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Read in one day.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A different kind of family saga with an ending I didn't see coming.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Took me through all life phases of siblinghood and the blessings of family love.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Benjamin's book will fill you with many emotions, both good and bad, but you won't want to put it down because it will remind you that none of us has anything more than today. So you'd better make the most of what life offers you and take advantage of the love of family and friends who count on you to keep moving forward. Nice job, Chloe!
Tracey_L More than 1 year ago
I've been very lucky to have had the opportunity to read three amazing new releases in this first week of 2018. The Immortalists is one of those three and am I ever so glad it was. First off, I have to correct an earlier impression I had - in pictures the cover looked ok, but nothing exceptional. In person it's absolutely gorgeous and I've found myself petting the book, which isn't a thing I do, but there it is! But that's just the outside, and what counts is the story, and it's one hell of a story. What would you do if you knew the date of your death? That's the journey we are taken on with the four Gold siblings, and it's a journey of immense proportions. This is a story that grabs you and doesn't let go, and for me that was just fine because I didn't want it to end. The characters were real and the incidents were believable and I recognized so many places described. It was a wonderful journey that I'm thrilled to have taken. I was provided a copy of this book by Bookish First in exchange for an honest review.
Rebecca Charlotte 29 days ago
I read this novel for one of my book clubs. The writing was quite beautiful with a large part of the story told using flashbacks. The book was formatted chronologically and broken up into four parts. Each part was narrated by a different sibling from youngest to oldest: first Simon, then Klara, followed by Daniel, and finally Varya. Simon and Klara were my favorite characters. What was most interesting was that the older siblings (Daniel and Varya) were more pragmatic characters who did not put much stock in the prophecy. But the younger siblings (Simon and Klara) were more dreamy and had an easier time believing the words of the fortuneteller. I would argue that because of this faith in "magic," they were able to live fuller and (in some ways) happier lives. In contrast, Daniel and Varya lived cold and lonely lives devoid of whimsy.
Anonymous 5 months ago
Anonymous 6 months ago
Anonymous 6 months ago
The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin is a fascinating study in the nature of young people faced with the truncation of their future. Most of us go through life thinking of our life as a limitless string of experiences, but for those of us who understand our mortality, it can look very different. For the young, to know their fate ahead of time is to have great power, however it can certainly be damning, as was the case here. Benjamin's writing style is gripping and beautiful, I am very much looking forward to her next work, whenever that might be. I would highly recommend it to anyone who wonders if their life is meaningless. I also love the cover art, it was what attracted me to the work in the first place.
Anonymous 7 months ago
Anonymous 8 months ago
safah_loves_literature 8 months ago
The immortalists is a beautifully written, thought-provoking story, unlike anything i have ever read before, about 4 siblings who are Israeli immigrants.who as children, go to see a woman who can tell the exact date of your death, despite being warned to stay away from her. We follow our characters years later when they are adults. The book is exceptionally well written and unique. What I liked most about the immortalists was the representation of culture and the diversity of characters. we are thrown right into the story and just want to know what happens next. Getting to know the death dates mentally disrupts our characters and they begin to abuse alcohol and cigarettes heavily. I love the way the book shows sibling relationships and cultural ritualism.
Anonymous 8 months ago
A beautiful story of what binds us together
Anonymous 9 months ago
First of all, compliments to B&N on the quick ship!!! Ordered THU afternoon, received my order on FRI! Read the entire book straight through Saturday afternoon. Interesting read -- relatable examples of interesting family dynamics governed by tradition, religion, expectations, etc. Also thought-provoking premise; if someone tells you you'll die young, how much of that prophecy will be self-fulfilling by your desire to "throw caution to the wind" and indulge in risky behaviors? Or on the flip side, if you're told it will be long time before you die, will you take precautionary measures to "make sure" that you live a long life? Good storytelling and an easy weekend read. Enjoyable!
Alienated_Bookworm 10 months ago
intriguing concept, but execution was a let-down. Characters didn't engage me and I couldn't care less what happened to them.
CaptainsQuarters 11 months ago
Ahoy there me mateys! The tagline “If you knew the date of your death, how would you live your life?” is what drew me to this novel. I thought it was going to be a fantasy or sci-fi title which is why I read it. Turns out it really is more of a historical fiction novel with a great premise and a not so great resolution. This story tells the tale of four Jewish siblings who grow up in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. In 1969 the siblings hear about a mystic who can tell ye the date of yer death. So the siblings set off to hear their fortunes. This be the tale of how they react to their news and what happens to them. I thought the writing was good and the story was compelling in the sense that I had to know how it ended. I listened to the audiobook and thought that the narration by Maggie Hoffman was very well done. But while I enjoyed many elements of the story, I thought that overall what happens to them was kinda crazy and over-the-top. The beginning of the novel up to what happened to the first brother, Simon was the best part. I loved the story of the siblings childhood and how they end up visiting the mystic. Simon ends up going to San Francisco with his sister Klara. Simon is gay and readin’ about the 1980s gay community was interesting though I wasn’t prepared for the number of sex scenes in this section. Simon was by far me favourite sibling. Klara’s tale of wanting to be a female magician is where the book started to fail me. It wasn’t that the subject material or character were uninteresting. It was here where the author’s choices weren’t to me liking. The Klara section was so drawn out. How Klara dies was also just so odd. The author also chooses to make the details of this death vague. I thought it was a lame way to make the prophecy come true. There was a cool setup for a stalker subplot that was a red herring. The next section dealt with Daniel and I kinda hated it. His section felt rushed and how he died and all the events around it were just ridiculous. The last section dealt with the sister Varya. She was a compelling character with OCD and was a science researcher. But her subplot (no details cause spoilers) was also silly. The ending of her section irked me. Other problems were that the mystic used the trope of being a Roma and that I hated the mother’s character and how everyone bent to her will. I feel like I didn’t like the book even though I enjoyed the experience of listening to it. I think it is a great character study with a not so great plot. But this was a New York Times bestseller and a NPR book of the year so what do I know? Arrrr!
sueward1958 12 months ago
I was pleasantly surprised at how much I loved this book. Very pretty cover. It was made more attractive when I learnt how the cover design is symbolic. We follow four children growing up. Right at the start I could see this was going to be “one of those reads” that you just had to ride along on the journey. If you were made aware of a date and time on which you were going to die, would this be a good thing or a bad thing? I’m not sure myself, I’m completely sitting on the fence. In some instance it’s a good thing, in another it freaks me out. The book is broken into four parts. Each sibling has a story to tell. Each one is unique. There is a strong sexual overdrive within this book which was essential to be written in, it wasn’t good but for some it may come as a shock. So you’ve been warned. Toward the end of the book it’s also difficult to read about animals being mistreated. The era and the mysterious reading of this book on the whole is a completely different aspect to any book I’ve read so far. It was going to be a 3* but on reflection I’ve given it a 4* because the writing is complex, believable and oh so good. It covers the start of the AIDS epidemic, and Las Vegas in the early 1980’s. The author left me with some thought provoking material.
DeediReads More than 1 year ago
“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.” I read this book because it was the Girls’ Night In January book club selection, and I was not disappointed. This is the perfect book for a book club — there’s a ton to digest, to ruminate about, to discuss. Themes of siblinghood, death, destiny, magic, and love. The book opens on four siblings: Varya, Daniel, Klara, and Simon. They go visit a gypsy woman who tells them each the day they’ll die. The following four sections of the book follow each of them, in reverse order of age (Simon, then Klara, then Daniel, then Varya) as we wait to see if and how that prophecy will come true. The resulting story is poignant and really makes you wonder whether these events are destined, or whether by knowing about them the siblings bring them about. But it’s a little too perfect to be entirely in their hands. I don’t know — I can’t wait to discuss. The characters were beautiful and rich, and I appreciated the in-depth look we got into each of them, one by one. I think Simon was my favorite. But truly, this book moved along well and made me think, and I definitely recommend.