Chloe Benjamin-The Immortalists

Synopsis: 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. (Adapted from Goodreads)

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Themes explored: puberty, sexual awakenings, mysticism, fortunes, sibling dynamics, self-hatred, parental hatred, destiny, magicians, immortality, longevity.

Review: Literary fiction, supposedly, refers to novels with literary merit, as opposed to commercial or “genre” fiction. A lot of mainstream critics and publishing houses consider literary fiction the “serious” version of the novel. Style wise, literary fiction generally has more character-driven plots and a slower pacing. Depending upon on your reading preferences, this either makes these novels moving and profound or less exciting than reading an encyclopedia.  Popular versions of literary fiction includes The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Goldfinch, Lord of the Flies, and 1984, to name a few.

The Immoralists falls under this category. I chose to read this book because the premise sounded interesting. However, I soon regretted this decision. Despite my best intentions, I could not finish this book.

For starters, the novel opens with a detailed description of one of the main character’s pubic hair. The opening sentences revolve around a young girl’s pre-pubescent body. None of these details add anything to the story and do not add anything to the character. One current trend in literature, especially “smart” stories, is explicit exploration of human anatomy, specifically reproductive organs. This theme has been explored by writers since the dawn of language, oral and written. If authors truly want to shock readers, write a novel without a sex scene. Unless you read children books, nearly every adult story nowadays deals with sex in graphic details, regardless of it adds anything to the plot. Chloe Benjamin could have started this book a million different ways. A description of pubic hair and the emerging female body set an odd tone to a story supposedly about children figuring out their destinies.  

Except for the opening chapter, the book is divided into four sections, one for each child: Simon, Karla, Daniel, and Varya Gold. They all dislike their parents and want to escape the confines of their Jewish middle class upbringing. After over hearing some older boys talking about a physic, the Gold children decide to pay this mysterious woman a visit. This woman tells the four kids when they will die. Afterwards, their relationships with their parents and each other change inexplicably. Once their father dies, they all go separate ways. Some choose more responsible paths than other.

The first section of the book deals with Simon, the youngest. I stopped reading the book about a third of the way through Simon’s story. He is an angry, resentful young man who dislikes all his siblings, except for Klara. His mother, in his opinion, treats him like a slave and he hated his father, even more so now that he is dead. Simon moves to San Francisco on a whim and become enmeshed in the 1980’s gay scene that existed in the city at that time. Benjamin then writes an explicit, extremely graphic and detailed account of Simon’s first sexual encounter with another man. I stopped reading at this point because I really have no desire to read about homosexual sex, especially in pornographic detail.  

The premise seemed really cool. However, the book only deals with the whole “immortal” theme for about a paragraph in the opening chapter. What else I read was no different than any other book dealing with sibling relationships and how childhood squabbles turn into adult fissures. Benjamin clearly has some writing talent and a market obviously exists for this type of novel. I am clearly not a member of this target market. Any book that begins with a description of pubic hair is unlikely to keep my attention.

The Immortalists, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2018, ISBN: 9780735213180

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