If you found out when you were going to die, how would your life change?
Chloe Benjamin fixates on this question in her novel The Immortalists, a story about the Golds, a Jewish family living in New York City in the late 1960s. After their father dies, the four siblings, Simon, Klara, Daniel, and Varya, become preoccupied with the idea of death. They seek out a fortune teller who claims to know when each of them will die; what they find out ends up changing the course of their lives. While the novel contains mystical elements and asks larger-than-life questions, it is also a relatable story that deals with the complexities of relationships and loss.
Each chapter focuses on one sibling, taking the reader on four distinct journeys spanning fifty years. Each character carves a different path as they grapple with their looming death date and fulfill their own notions of a meaningful life.
Despite their diverse paths, the siblings’ shared Jewish upbringing (and their guilt-tripping Jewish mother) seeps into all of their headspaces. Religion doesn’t seem to be so far off from magic — their mysterious expiration date can somehow be intertwined with their take on Judaism. We can see how each character copes with the two when they seek answers from one while questioning the other:
If nothing else, Judaism had taught her to keep running, no matter who tried to hold her hostage. It had taught her to create her own opportunities, to turn rock into water and water to blood. It had taught her that such things were possible.
Benjamin captures the diverse ways people cope with the fact of their own death, and leaves readers musing over whether it’s destiny or choice that ultimately determines the course of people’s lives.