The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin is a philosophical treat. Four siblings (Simon, Klara, Daniel and Varya) visit a fortune teller who is known for her ability to tell people the day they will die. We then follow each character in their death order from first to last which also coincides with the youngest to oldest child. Spoilers abound in this review which only glosses the surface of the story’s depth.
After their father’s death, Simon and Klara run away to San Francisco while Simon is only sixteen. Simon rapidly falls into a gay lifestyle, becoming a dancer in one of the many clubs and also pursuing ballet. Readers follow his escapades which ultimately lead to his death at a very young age.
Klara has always been fascinated by magic. Inspired by a grandmother she never met, she pursues the Iron Jaw act, which involves using her mouth to swing from a rope. She is a talented magician, but sick. Her life revolves around small time shows and alcoholism until she meets her eventual costar, husband and father of her daughter Ruby. He pushes them to take their act, The Immortalists, to Vegas. This leads to her death right before their first big show.
Daniel is full of anger toward the fortune teller. He feels that his siblings’ lives may have gone differently without her interference. He also feels guilt since it was his idea to go to her in the first place. Daniel ends up seeking out the woman which leads to his death.
This leaves Varya. She is the oldest sibling and her lifespan is predicted to be the longest, but her portion of the story is the shortest, and in my opinion, the saddest. She has spent her life with OCD and a fear of building relationships with anyone. Her only family interactions are with her mother and brother Daniel. She gave away a child for adoption following a one-night stand. Her main focus is on her work. She works with lab animals to discover how to lengthen one’s life through a limited diet. This part of the book was tough for me because of the animal involvement. Varya ends up working her way through her deeply psychological issues, but it takes a rough awakening.
Is there any benefit to knowing one’s own death date? Would knowing it shape people differently and lead them to make different choices than they would without knowing? I think the answer to the latter question is probably yes. This story is a tragedy with some glimmers of light through the strength of love and family. Unfortunately, this discovery is too late for most involved.