Book Review - The Immortalists
Posted on 07 March 2018
At the beginning of this year, I decided I wanted to get back to reading more books. I used to read all the time and life just got in the way recently. I realized that last year, I barely read more than one book. Things had to change.
So when Ruth from Rainclouds and Sage asked if I wanted to start a sort-of bookclub with her to encourage each other to read more, I had to say yes! I'm always so inspired by Ruth, so of course I couldn't wait to start on this new venture with her. And so, the Transatlantic Bookclub was born.
For our first month in February, we read The Immortalists, by Chloe Benjamin. If you knit, I'm guessing you've probably seen it all over Instagram lately, as Benjamin is a knitter and has done some work with Quince and Co. to promote the book. That said, this book has nothing to do with knitting.
As a brief overview, the book is about four siblings who go to a fortune teller as children and she tells them each the date they will die. The rest of the book then follows each of their lives and how they process this information (or don't).
The Immortalists really challenged my way of thinking, which I always love and appreciate in a novel. I don't think I have really come to any conclusions about what I think, so I have a feeling this blog post is going to turn into a bit of a word vomit as I try to sort through all of my thoughts on it. Be prepared.
PLEASE NOTE - this is meant to be a discussion and will give away parts of the story. If you have not read the book and don't want it to be spoiled, please stop reading! I would love to really hear about what people thought (especially about the ending) so from here on out, it's fair game!
Also - while I wish it didn't need to be said, our world is very polarized right now. On this blog, every opinion is welcomed and accepted. Comments that start to get nasty or mean will not be included. The whole purpose of this book review is to encourage conversation and share our thoughts with one another, not to break each other down.
Of course, the biggest concept The Immortalists brought up for me was the idea of fate vs. free will. Simon's story really exemplified this. Did he die because he went to San Francisco? Or would he have died some other way if he had stayed? Is our path decided for us? I know this is closely related to religious beliefs, so please remember - all opinions are welcome here.
Personally, I don't believe that my fate is pre-determined. I don't think that my story is already written and will turn out a certain way no matter what I do. That said, I also don't really believe in free will. I think that all of our decisions are based on our past experiences. The free will that I might think I have is influenced by my past and how it has impacted me. So I guess, I think that everything that has happened leading up to now will inform my next step. But what does that mean?
There was a section that stuck out to me in Daniel's story about this:
"But perhaps God was nothing like the dreadful, lurid fascination that brought him to the fortune teller, nothing like her preposterous claims. For Saul, God had meant order, tradition, culture, and history. Daniel still believed in choice, but perhaps that did not foreclose belief in God. He imagined a new God, one who nudged him when he was going to wrong way but never strong-armed him, one who advised but did not insist - one who guided him, like a father."
Would Simon have stayed if his father hadn't died? If he weren't gay? If he hadn't gone to see the fortune teller? Or did all of those things lead up to his decision? Then again, if they did, I guess you could say his fate in San Francisco was pre-determined by his past actions. Oof. It's a complicated concept. What do you think? Do you believe in fate, free will, or something else entirely?
There was a small conversation going on over on Instagram on my last post about this book and someone brought up the power of suggestion, which I hadn't even really thought about yet. But as soon as I read that comment, it hit me...yes. The power of suggestion is so real!
I went to school for advertisting, so my ideas behind the power of suggestion are influenced by my education in a big way. But even without school, just think about how advertising influences your life. How many times have you been scrolling through Instagram and an ad for pizza pops up and a couple hours later you want pizza for dinner? No? Just me? My Instagram apparently knows me a little too well...
But seriously - it goes well beyond advertising and into our culture. And here's where I get real deep...what about the power of suggestion when it comes to gender roles? Is it nature or nurture that creates those expectations of gender? Do we suggest through our actions and our words that men are supposed to be strong and emotionless, while women are supposed to be soft and caring?
Varya's stories brings this up as well:
"But Varya disagreed. She knew that stories did have the power to change things: the past and the future, even the present. She had been an agnostic since graduate school, but if there was one tenant of Judaism with which she agreed, it was this: the power of words. They weaseled under door cracks and through keyholes. They hooked into individuals and wormed through generations."
What role does the power of suggestion play in the person we become? If someone tells you that you're stupid over and over again, do you eventually give up trying to be smart? I think this idea is most apparent in Klara and Daniel's stories. Did the date they were told influence them to such a degree that it became reality? Or would it have happened the same way if the date were different?
Varya's story really hit me hard and I found it quite haunting. And yet, I don't know if I can explain why just yet. I might need to sit with it for awhile. I think it's the idea of overcoming this person who you have become, to break out of not only what is expected of you, but of what you expect of yourself.
I have always been hard on myself. I have always had high expectations of who I am, who I will become and what I should be doing. The times of biggest growth in my life are also the times that I realized that life might not be about who I "should" become, and rather who I would like to become. Varya's story is so powerful in this way...seeing her struggle as her past decisions come back to challenge her present.
And really, that takes it full circle for me. Her past experiences have influenced her current situation and will therefore inform the decisions she makes from here on out. But I love what she says at the end:
"She feared that fate was fixed, but she hoped - God, she hoped - that it was not too late for life to surprise her. She hoped it was not too late for her to surprise herself."
A few people have brought up the idea of living every day to the fullest when talking about this book, because you never know which day will be your last. I am probably over-practical, but I don't think that's possible. If you live every day as if it's your last, you wouldn't (or at least I wouldn't) focus on my responsibilities of daily life. I think I would ignore the balance of necessity vs. spontaneity.
To me, this book reminds me to love and value the people I have in my life, because you never know when they'll be gone. The timing of this is also hitting me hard, as my uncle passed away yesterday after a battle with Parkinson's. It's bittersweet - we knew it was coming and I am glad he's no longer suffering with the disease. But at the same time, I am mourning the time I didn't get with him. We weren't as close as we could have been over the last fifteen or so years and I don't feel like I knew him as I became an adult. Most of my memories of him are from my childhood and are blurry.
So for me, I am taking this away from The Immortalists: remember to love. Remember to connect with the important people in your life while you still can. Share your feelings, even if it means getting hurt. I don't want to look back with regret when it comes to the people I love. I want to love fully and openly.
What did you take away from The Immortalists? What did you think? I would love to hear how the book impacted other people too! Please leave your comments and let's start a conversation.