Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists Is Pure Magic | Library Reads Author

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In Chloe Benjamin’s vibrant new novel, The Immortalists, four siblings in 1969 New York visit a fortune teller said to predict the date of one’s death. Elders Daniel and Varya grow up to become an army doctor and a scientist, respectively, while headstrong Klara works as a magician in Las Vegas, and the insouciant youngest, Simon, finds love and dance in San Francisco. Each struggles with presumably knowing his or her death date, and the reader can’t help but wonder how different their lives might have been had they never made that visit.

“That’s the question of the book, and it’s so hard to answer,” says the ebullient Benjamin in a phone interview with LJ. “It isn’t possible that their lives would have been the same after hearing such prophecies, but how drastically different would they be?” Simon was restless, for instance, but did what he learned give him that extra push to run away from home? Perhaps, says Benjamin, it comes back to the fortune teller’s saying that character is fate; if so, then the prophecies can’t be real.

But were the prophecies real? Or did hearing them so powerfully affect the four siblings that they seemed real? A great strength of Benjamin’s smartly written narrative is that you can read it either way—or both ways at once. As Benjamin says, “I wanted readers to make up their own minds, and to be honest, I don’t know my own mind on this question.” Benjamin, who concedes that she’s fascinated with intuition and the idea of something beyond, gives another solid reason for leaving this question unresolved: “If it were cut and dried, it would not be interesting to write.” Or, for that matter, to read.

Fate, prophecy, and, in one of Benjamin’s many sparkling phrases, the capriciousness of luck. Does free will have a place here? However entertaining her prose, Benjamin handily takes on such weighty concerns. “Whether something is random or fated, it’s out of our hands, so those divergent ­labels are more similar than they seem,” she observes. None of which precludes acting freely: “Fate and chance and choice are all in a grayer matrix than it probably seems.”

All the better, then, that as Varya finally recognizes, we are graced with what Benjamin calls the freedom of uncertainty—the book’s hopeful takeaway. “You could make a case for having knowledge of the future,” she insists, but despite the agony or frustration, there’s a freedom in not knowing.” That’s what we cope with daily, and it’s how we cope that matters.

As she unfolds events, ­Benjamin moves sequentially from teenage Simon’s flowering in San Francisco (Benjamin’s hometown), Klara’s determined pursuit of magic, a middle-aged Daniel’s longing for family, and an older, perpetually anxious and controlling Varya’s work with primates, heartbreakingly rendered.

“I am always drawn to books and to writing books with a firm sense of structure,” she explains. “It keeps me in line.” This approach allows her to fit in everything flowingly while presenting events from different perspectives. And, as she explains, “It’s a restriction that gives me more freedom.”

The siblings’ stories are so intriguing that they might have been told without recourse to a fortune teller, but this character’s presence makes all the difference in a book that’s both fun and deep. Fittingly, ­Benjamin dreamed up the children and their spiritual guide “in some alchemical way,” in connection if not at the same instant. In the end, whether you think the prophecies were real or  not, one thing is certain: Benjamin’s book is pure magic.—Barbara Hoffert

Created by a group of librarians, LibraryReads offers a monthly list of ten current titles culled from nominations made by librarians nationwide as their favorites. See the January 2018 list at and contact to make your own nomination.

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Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.

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