The Immortalists, Chloe Benjamin, author; Maggie Hoffman, narrator
When the book begins, in 1969, the Gold children decide to visit a fortune teller named Bruna Costello, a Romani gypsy who could tell those who consulted her the date of their deaths. At the time, Varya was 13, Daniel was 11, Klara was 9 and Simon was 7. The lives of the four would be forever impacted by this knowledge and experience. Three were told they would die young, while the fourth would live deep into her eighties. Each of the siblings pretended that the knowledge was ridiculous, when confronted, but as they grew up, they began to think more and more about their impending demise, and they made decisions based on that knowledge, thinking it just might be true. Would their choices propel them in the direction of their deaths, or would they die at the predicted time, regardless?
The book covers almost half a century as it travels down the lives of each of the children, ending with the explanation of Varya’s ongoing life in 2010. The characters are well developed with all of the idiosyncrasies “that flesh is heir to”. Each of them suffered from some disability or deviance which caused a problem during the time in which they grew up. Simon was gay, Varya had OCD, Daniel was overly regimented and organized, and Klara saw the world as her play gym. Their mother was portrayed as a typically complaining, stereotypical Jewish mother who instilled guilt at every opportunity. The father, a tailor, was the more stable, emotionally, and the more accepting of the pair. Both had suffered a huge loss of family members during the Holocaust and were grateful for being in America.
As the three generations of Golds were explored, through their relationships or lack thereof, some of the major issues of the times were also introduced through them. With the parents it was the Holocaust, with the children it was homosexuality and civil rights, with the grandchildren it was environmental issues and women’s rights. The book introduced racism and anti-Semitism, mental illness and environmental issues with animal cruelty taking the center stage. The Castro in San Francisco, which was a well known gay area, coupled with the murder of Harvey Milk, became almost a character in the book as homosexuality was explored in great detail. Because of several interracial couplings, the issues of racism and civil rights were also featured. Mental illness and anti-Semitism were far less developed, but family dynamics was explored fairly well. Overall, did the idea of their deaths hanging over them affect the choices they made, bringing about a self-fulfilling prophecy, or did everything simply go according to plan.
I was not that pleased with the portrayal of the Jewish family and was not quite sure why a Jewish family was chosen to display so many negative aspects of life, unless it was simply because it began on the Lower East Side of Manhattan which was largely populated by Jews at one time, mostly early in the first half of the century. Each of the characters introduced seemed to be selfish and was negatively described until almost the end when some redeeming features were reviewed. Some of the more negative characteristics were selfishness, alcohol consumption, suicide, murder, mental illness, single motherhood, sexual deviance, racism, coldness, a lack of compassion, abortion, and generally cruel or nasty behavior toward one another, making sure to point out their faults rather than their positive qualities, discouraging their efforts rather than praising them.
In some ways I feel as if the publishing industry is pushing the agenda of the far left in most of the books chosen recently, and I found the issues somewhat contrived.