The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

Hardcover, 352 pages
Expected publication: January 9th 2018 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons
If you were told the date of your death, how would it shape your present?

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.

Their 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, hoping to control fate; and bookish Varya throws herself into longevity research, where she tests the boundary between science and immortality.

“There are two major theories about how to stop aging…”
“…It sounds like you’re saying we can choose to live. Or we can choose to survive.”

Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists is a thoughtfully executed novel written in simple, yet often poetic, prose that allowed the characters’ voices at their most forceful to shine on their own past the narrative itself. More than that, it is a novel crafted around a question we all ask ourselves more often than we’d care to admit: “Is it more important to truly live or to survive? To dare to dream at our grandest or to play it safe?” And, if you knew the exact day on which you’d die, would you live your life any differently than you would without that hateful knowledge?

In their youth, the Gold siblings follow a rumor to the home of a Gypsy fortune teller who gives them the knowledge they seek: the exact dates of their deaths. These prophecies propel them forward for the rest of their lives, influencing their decisions, changing the courses of their lives and plunging the question into the forefront of their minds forever: Was the fortune teller right, and, if so, can they change the course of their own fates?

It’s an intriguing idea, we must all admit. A scary one. A downright chilling one. And the leitmotif Benjamin poses to her reader manifests itself throughout the novel with compelling force, from the exploration of God and country’s place within our existence, to what the prophecy of one’s own death does to such beliefs. Do we cling to such notions and ingrained dogmas all the way to the end, cowering under them safely like warm, childhood blankets, or using them to fortify us in our resolve and everyday decisions—or, do we slough off and away such religious and secular beliefs and become our own reason for living, our own life force, whether to our own detriment or benefit?

The Immortalists bounds along a timeline spanning five decades, trotting through the start of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco—

“You weren’t terrified?”
“No, not then…When doctors said we should be celibate, it didn’t feel like they were telling us to choose between sex and death. It felt like they were asking us to choose between death and life. And no one who worked that hard to live life authentically, to have sex authentically, was willing to give it up.”

¬–toward Las Vegas in the 80s and into the early years of this century, tackling tough questions, such as the logistics behind increasing the human lifespan—and the politics of attempting such a thing. For readers who enjoy novels of sweeping timelines, they’re sure to find a treat in Benjamin’s latest novel. The period settings weren’t quite as immersive as I’d hoped—the societal and technological differences in backdrop between the decades were noted but not submerging in a way that allowed me to really feel I was moving from decade to decade with true authenticity. However, what I did take from this book were lessons to carry with me, delivered by poignant phrasing that outshone the actual stories of the four siblings’ lives. And that resonated loudly enough to forgive such specifics.

I had an interesting relationship with this novel as I continued my reader’s affair with it. I could not relate specifically to any one of the characters in this book. I would not have been friends with any of them in real life, and I did feel that some of the plotlines were predictable. BUT, I learned a lesson from every single one of the siblings that I took with me until the end, and each of those moments of recognition were special.

What do you want?…and if [she] answered him honestly she would have said this: To go back to the beginning. She would tell her thirteen-year-old self not to visit the woman. To her twenty-five-year old self: Find Simon, forgive him…She’d tell herself she would die, she would die, they all would…She’d tell herself that what she really wanted was not to live forever, but to stop worrying…”

This is a novel with a strong core and a big heart, with a moral and a central theme to tie all the threads together. Chloe Benjamin’s second novel continued her thus-far-established trend of exploring existential questions in our everyday lives, creating a brand for her that is sure to glimmer and shine, attracting new readers from far and wide. 4 stars ****

I received a copy of this novel from the publisher, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.

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**Exclusive CHLOE BENJAMIN INTERVIEW to come!!!**

Chloe  Benjamin Chloe Benjamin is the author of THE ANATOMY OF DREAMS (Atria, 2014), which received the Edna Ferber Fiction Book Award and was longlisted for the 2014 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. Her second novel, THE IMMORTALISTS, is forthcoming from Putnam. A graduate of Vassar College and the M.F.A. in fiction at the University of Wisconsin, Chloe lives with her husband in Madison, WI.

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Paperback, 248 pages
Published October 3rd 2017 by Graywolf Press

In Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado blithely demolishes the arbitrary borders between psychological realism and science fiction, comedy and horror, fantasy and fabulism. While her work has earned her comparisons to Karen Russell and Kelly Link, she has a voice that is all her own. In this electric and provocative debut, Machado bends genre to shape startling narratives that map the realities of women’s lives and the violence visited upon their bodies.

A wife refuses her husband’s entreaties to remove the green ribbon from around her neck. A woman recounts her sexual encounters as a plague slowly consumes humanity. A salesclerk in a mall makes a horrifying discovery within the seams of the store’s prom dresses. One woman’s surgery-induced weight loss results in an unwanted houseguest. And in the bravura novella Especially Heinous, Machado reimagines every episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, a show we naively assumed had shown it all, generating a phantasmagoric police procedural full of doppelgangers, ghosts, and girls with bells for eyes.

Earthy and otherworldly, antic and sexy, queer and caustic, comic and deadly serious, Her Body and Other Parties swings from horrific violence to the most exquisite sentiment. In their explosive originality, these stories enlarge the possibilities of contemporary fiction.

Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties is a collection I was so excited to read I dragged a friend in to read it with me. We handed off back and forth who got to pick the next story, never going in order, and found ourselves surprisingly disappointed by each one.

In all honesty, I was drawn to what Machado was trying to do here, to what she was trying to say. But, she didn’t say it with enough force. Some of her stories, such as “Real Women Have Bodies” and “Eight Bites” seemed to not amount to much more than a harsh whisper, if that, never fully realizing themselves. I wanted more–MORE from a voice that dared to tackle such bold topics as the female experience and psyche. And by “more” I don’t mean argumentative or domineering in tone; some of my favorite short stories ever crept up on me with a gentle breeze at my neck only to bowl me over in the end with words just as gentle. Machado and Her Body didn’t do that for me. In fact, what I remember most about this collection is my buddy reader’s and my disappointed-mounting-to-annoyed reaction as each story was read and discussed. For such a topic that spoke to us, we both wanted to learn something, to feel something–something.

Here’s what I will say: Carmen Maria Machado clearly has something to say, though I, myself, didn’t hear it loudly enough. I thoroughly enjoyed her use of Gothic elements–vaguely supernatural devices used to convey her thoughts, to tinge her messages in wonder. Yet, some of her works were too referential without adding enough to the conversation to warrant the blatant references (to “The Girl with the Ribbon Around her Neck” and Law & Order: SVU in particular). “The Husband Stitch” was my favorite story, because of the unique and haunting asides inserted into the narrative, but the ending failed to shock or move me, so even that story did not live up to the hype around this collection. Every story I read left me wishing there was more–not length but meat and substance, not words but voice and resonance. As we all know, fabulously original ideas must, too, be supported by the execution of them, and that I did not see impressively done here. 2.5* rounded up to ***

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Carmen Maria MachadoCarmen Maria Machado’s debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2017. She is a fiction writer, critic, and essayist whose work has appeared in The New YorkerGrantaAGNI, NPR, VICEBest American Science Fiction & Fantasy 2015Best Horror of the YearYear’s Best Weird Fiction, and Best Women’s Erotica. She has been the recipient of a Millay Colony for the Arts residency, the CINTAS Foundation Fellowship in Creative Writing, the Elizabeth George Foundation Fellowship, and a Michener-Copernicus Fellowship, as well as nominated for a Nebula and Shirley Jackson Awards and longlisted for a Tiptree Award. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, and lives in Philadelphia with her partner.

Palace Council by Stephen L. Carter

Hardcover, 512 pages
Published July 8th 2008 by Knopf (first published January 1st 2008)

In the summer of 1952, twenty prominent men gather at a secret meeting on Martha’s Vineyard and devise a plot to manipulate the President of the United States. Soon after, the body of one of these men is found by Eddie Wesley, Harlem’s rising literary star. When Eddie’s younger sister mysteriously disappears, Eddie and the woman he loves, Aurelia Treene, are pulled into what becomes a twenty-year search for the truth. As Eddie and Aurelia uncover layer upon layer of intrigue, their odyssey takes them from the wealthy drawing rooms of New York through the shady corners of radical politics, all the way to the Oval Office.

Stephen Carter’s novel is as complex as it is suspenseful, and with his unique ability to turn stereotypes inside out, Palace Council is certain to enthrall readers to the very last page.

Whew, this book was a lot! It was a murder mystery and whodunit, an exploration of 20 of the most tumultuous years in American 20th century history and a political thriller, not to mention a foray into Harlem’s Golden Age of influential African Americans with the money and connections most never knew existed for them in those days. There was a lot crammed within these 500+ pages, sometimes for the better and sometimes not.

Stephen L. Carter is my favorite author for his ability to weave historical truth with fiction and for his portrayal of the African American community–both modern-day and historically–so accurate in its incisiveness and so taunt in his analysis of it. I’ve never encountered an author before or since who had such an accurate, compelling and thought-provoking voice about the upper echelons of black culture–the very embodiment of W.E.B. Dubois’ Talented Tenth–the subculture within a culture that so few even know exists with its own rich history, mores and societal rules. Carter displayed all of this and more within the pages of Palace Council, and that I lapped up with the enthusiasm you’d expect from one who’d gone too long without such substance.

I’ve seen Carter’s work described as being Dan Brown-like, and it’s true–they do share the element of mysteries solved through obscure literary references and the thrill of running from killers hellbent on snatching the clues the protagonist has found for themselves. But may I step in here and say that Stephen L. Carter is more wily than Dan Brown, his plots more complex in so many ways? Carter’s novels center around both the present and past of affluent African American culture, which allows his reader a basis on which to start from in every read and the thrill of seeing unexpected recurrences of previous characters in diverse stages of their lives. For example, The Emperor of Ocean Parkrevolves around the Garland family who also play a prominent part in Palace Council, set 50 years before the events in Emperor even happened. Readers who love to follow characters over the spans of their lives–who don’t just want to see them one and done in one novel–will love this as I do. This is Carter’s angle (pun intended for those who’ve read this book), rather than the Bond-like supporting female characters of Brown’s novels.

Stephen L. Carter’s novels are always decadent in setting, but Palace Council took the cake. Sweeping from Harlem to Washington D.C. to Saigon and back again, it’s the details here that filled so many pages of this novel. There are so many minute and intricate details here that make their world more solid and complete–from street names in Hong Kong to delicious elements of historic events of the 50s, 60s and 70s–that this one novel could easily be made into a multi-season TV series–and should! Yet, in the setting of one book, it was a lot to take in at once.

If it’s possible for one to drown in literary details, I must say I certainly struggled to stay afloat at times, keeping characters and their bloodlines straight amidst the historical events surrounding them–from Kent State, to the Tet Offensive, to JFK’s assassination and beyond. At times the narrative moved at too slow a pace, filled with historical filler and unnecessary scenes, both, which slowed the plot (in true literary form) rather than urging it forward. While these historical landmarks (the dates sometimes toyed with for the benefit of the characters at Carter’s admission) helped to center the players within these pages and paint a complete picture of the age they lived in, there were also so many times where historic events seemed just dumped in there. (I hesitate to say haphazardly because I doubt Carter does anything “haphazard” ever.) And, I’ll admit, the plot was sometimes muddled and muddied by Carter’s abundance of clever asides and descriptive tags galore. But Carter’s novels reside in the company between Dan Brown’s thrillers steeped in literary puzzles and Salman Rushdie’s erudition. And for that, he warrants all the praise he has garnered, and remains my favorite author to date. Palace Council earned a solid 4 stars sullied only by the editor’s inability to rein this one in a little more. (Honestly, a good 75 pages at least could have been chopped.) ****

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Stephen L. Carter Stephen L. Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale where he has taught since 1982. He has published seven critically acclaimed nonfiction books on topics ranging from affirmative action to religion and politics. His first novel, The Emperor of Ocean Park (2002), was an immediate national best seller. His latest novel is New England White (Knopf, 2007). A recipient of the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literature-Fiction, he lives near New Haven, Connecticut.