I received this book as a galley from the publisher and it in no way influences my review. In fact, I really wanted to enjoy The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin. Unfortunately, after a few days to sit with this book and think about it, I still feel tepid at best towards it.
Summary: This book is about four siblings that seek out to find a woman who can tell them when they are going to die. At this point of the book, they are still very young and unlikely mature enough to process that information. The story explores how each sibling deals with this information and their journeys to their death dates.
First off, this book is sold as magical realism with family drama mixed in, but its literary fiction. The woman’s ability to tell them this information is portrayed as a cultural/family gift than magic she possesses. I’ve read that some people have been disappointed that part of it was short.
It’s difficult to talk about this book without spoilers so here’s a few spoiler free highlights if you want to know more about it.
- In concept, this book is very interesting. In the hands of a more skilled author, it would have been incredible to read. However, while the writing itself is wonderful at times, the plot devices used are boring, overused, and cheap drama.
- As we get to the siblings with longer lives, they become more and more unlikable. I don’t necessarily need to love a character or want to root for them, but I know it bothers some people.
- It is unreasonably graphic in each section, but for different reasons
- There’s one character that has something to do with all of them (except maybe the last sibling?) and I want to know more about his story than I do the family at some parts of the story.
- This book is more like a character study with each 1/4 of the book focused on one character over a span of years. You do hear about some of the other family members during this time as well.
- Lastly, the book is relentlessly tough to read and sad. There weren’t any good moments beyond the middle portion of Simon’s story and then a couple of good paragraphs talking about what other characters have been up to.
At times, I wondered if I was reading the same book as so many reviewers that loved this book. I imagine it’ll be on several best books of 2018 lists, but I don’t think it’s deserved. I’ve read other family sagas over the past few years that were more compelling and they didn’t always have a great concept like this.
Because this book is like a character study and it uses very trigger heavy content, I think a few warnings are necessary if someone is interested in this book.
One more warning about spoilers before I get started…
Trigger Warnings: LGBTQ character dies first, AIDS, promiscuity
Oh Simon. If only your life wasn’t ended in a completely terrible and boring way, you would have been the only character I enjoyed in this book. He runs away with his sister Klara to San Francisco when he is still in high school. Instead of continuing his education, he gets a job as a dancer and feels accepted in the gay community. Since his death date is so young, he decides to sleep around until he meets a man he can love. This is the 1980s so you can probably guess the reason he dies early.
Some reviews talk about how graphic the book is and this section is likely where a lot of people DNF the book. Once again, this doesn’t bother me, but I thought it deserved some explanation.
Trigger Warnings: Mental health, controlling and abusive relationship, suicide
I find Klara’s partner extremely controlling and abusive. Klara is a magician who enjoys her life a lot in San Francisco. He stops her from contacting her family when they decide to take their magic show on the road and keeps her isolated. When she hears knocks and believes they are Simon, he dismisses it instead of suggesting she get help until the end. Unfortunately, she believes the knocks are her father and Simon and ends her life because she thinks they’re telling her to. This is compounded by the fact that she finally has a huge show in Las Vegas, something her partner and eventually child take over.
Trigger Warnings: Mental health, violence, suicide by cop, home intrusion
At first, I could relate a lot of Daniel. His two younger siblings died and he didn’t have much connection with them. He was at a crossroads with his career. However, it took a very dark turn when he found out their non-fortune teller was under investigation for several suicides associated with her predictions (Klara specifically). This leads Daniel to fall apart when they drop the investigation, find the woman, and (we assume) kills the woman and dies when a cop shoots him.
On a side note, this is when Klara’s daughter appears as a teenager. They talk a lot about how Daniel wanted a child, but respected his wife’s decision not to and I thought this was a very interesting take on it. However, I got some weird vibes from his inner thoughts on her so it’s hard to decide if it was normal or wildly inappropriate. However, she reconnects with his mother (who’s still alive until the end by the way) and that is something wonderful in the last section of the book.
Trigger Warnings: Animal cruelty, experimentation, and violence, aging/ageism
I can almost forgive what happened before this portion, but Varya’s story is why this is a two star review for me. Without going into too many details, the experiment uses monkeys to prove an aging hypothesis by restricting their food. She also has some obsessive tendencies like her siblings when her (surprise!) child shows up. Most of this section I’ve tried to block out of my memory because it was too much after reading the first three sections. For context, I took my time with Simon’s portion and then read the rest of the book as fast as possible just to get through it.
Like I said before, I really wanted to enjoy this book. I had heard some great things about it and loved the concept of it. I’m just not thrilled when an author uses cheap shock tactics to sell books. You can tell a compelling story without making someone cry or angry because it’s so terrible what happened to these characters and what they do. This is also why I reviewed it. If I can let one person who struggles with any of these subjects know what is in this book, then I feel like it was worth a blog post
Happy(er) Reading Everyone!