How would you live your life if you knew the exact date you were going to die? Can you already imagine what you would do — would you do anything? — differently? That’s the proverbial question at the heart of one of January’s most buzzed-about novels, Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists out Jan. 9 from G.P. Putnam’s Sons. Already being compared to bestsellers like Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You and Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, The Immortalists spans five magical, tumultuous decades in the lives of the Gold family: four adolescents growing up in New York City, whose lives are changed one afternoon in the summer of 1969 by a traveling psychic who predicts the death dates of those who visit her.
Each of the Gold siblings are disturbed by the prophesies in their own ways, keeping the dates secret from one another even though the knowledge becomes central to the rest of their lives. The youngest Gold child, Simon, runs away to find himself and reckless love in 1980s San Francisco. Klara dedicates her life to living up to her namesake, a long lost grandmother who worked as a circus performer. Daniel and Varya, the eldest Gold children, opt for more traditional lives weighted by responsibility and obligation, but filled with security. The prophesies haunt each of the Golds over the years, even as they alternate between skepticism, hope, and fear — begging, perhaps, the more important question: would you even want to know the date of your death in the first place?
Benjamin, who received the Edna Ferber Fiction Award for her 2014 debut, The Anatomy of Dreams, would — but with a caveat that most readers can relate to. “I always say I'd want to know... but only if my date is far in the future,” Benjamin tells Bustle. “Hence the paradox! I think people would live differently if we all knew our dates, because I think it would be impossible for that knowledge not to have an impact — but as for how behavior would change, I think that would be personal and varied.”
That personal variation is evidenced by each of the Golds, who approach their lives in markedly different ways, leaving readers to wonder whether their prophecies changed their trajectories, or whether they simply became who they were always meant to become in the first place. It’s a question that plagues the Gold siblings throughout their lives as well: each take turns wondering whether it’s the prophesy itself, or their mere belief in the prophesy, that dictates their outcomes.
“I wanted to leave this open to interpretation for the reader,” says Benjamin, when I ask her if she arrived at the answer to that question herself, through writing The Immortalists. “And truth be told, I go back and forth as well! I think, as is so often the case, it's a both/and situation — the intrigue lies in the way that fate, chance, and expectation interact.”
She does note that each path the siblings take has their pros and cons — though she won’t say she thinks any one lived “better” or more fully than any of the others. “I think the youngest two siblings, Simon and Klara, live with the most abandon, passion, and urgency. On the other hand, there's selfishness to that, and the older two siblings are more cognizant of the bonds and responsibilities of family.”
"The intrigue lies in the way that fate, chance, and expectation interact."
Human beings’ obsession with death is well documented — since practically the beginning of time we’ve attempted to explain it, delay it, prevent it, and seek out answers for what, if anything, happens to us after we die. But for all the intrigue, death is both commonplace and universal. And yet, most of us ignore that fact unless faced with death directly and specifically. I ask Benjamin about this.
“Our relationship with death is theoretical until something happens to make it literal, and that shift is life-changing. As for why that is, I suspect it has to do with our deep discomfort with death (particularly in Western cultures), which perhaps stems from our discomfort with the unknown. We live in a world of distraction, instant gratification, and predictive technology, but death remains mysterious and unpredictable.”
For as much as The Immortalists centers around questions of death, it’s a novel that is actually filled with great life. There is enchantment and mysticism, adventure and romance, humor and hope; and it grapples with questions of religion and science, medicine and magic as well — seemingly disconnected ways of understanding the world that Benjamin seamlessly weaves together.
"Our relationship with death is theoretical until something happens to make it literal, and that shift is life-changing."
“I see all of those approaches as ways of coping with mystery,” she says. “Religion, in some ways, accepts the unknown, placing trust in a higher power; science seeks to uncover and understand it. But I think religion, science, medicine, and magic have more similarities than they seem to on the surface. For instance, Klara, a magician, connects deeply with her father, a conservative Jew, even though she doesn't believe in God and he doesn't believe in magic. She discovers that their belief systems have surprising overlap.”
No one can walk away from Benjamin’s novel saying that the lives of the Gold siblings, if not always well-lived, aren’t lived on their own terms. Each of them, in a number of ways, surprised me, and left me questioning whether or not I would make similar choices, if put in their situations. Benjamin says she was surprised by her characters as well — in particular two supporting characters who became central to the Golds’ stories.
"But I think religion, science, medicine, and magic have more similarities than they seem to on the surface."
“I had a sense of each character's trajectory when I started writing their section, but they changed in small and sometimes large ways once I got to know them,” Benjamin says. “Initially, for instance, I thought that Raj (Klara's lover) would be a more ominous presence, but I came to love him and see all that's positive about him. Eddie O'Donoghue (a cop who weaves throughout the novel) was a big surprise; I didn't expect him to return later in the book and to have such a major impact on one of the siblings."
The Immortalists is also, in many ways, a story about storytelling — the power of the stories that are told to us, and the ones we tell ourselves. Throughout the novel, each of the Gold siblings repeatedly return to the idea that the stories they were given — their death dates — were powerful enough to change their lives.
“During my research into the Romani people, the ethnic group whose members have historically told fortunes [and the ethnic group from which the Gold’s own fortune teller originates] I came across a proverb — "Thoughts have wings" — that resonated deeply with me and with the novel,” says Benjamin. “As a writer, language is my tool. I believe in the power of language to create change. But the flip side to a belief in the power of thoughts and stories is that such a belief can seem absurd at best and narcissistic at worst: who are we, to think we have such control over the world? So I vacillate between the two, and The Immortalists explores this tension.”
Suspenseful, compassionate, inquisitive, and wholly captivating, The Immortalists will definitely leave readers looking at a timeless question: 'how would you live if you knew when you were going to die?', with fresh eyes.