Get Busy Living or Get Busy Dying: The Immortalists

Originally published February 2018

What would you do if you knew when you were going to die?

Would that kind of knowledge make a difference in your day-to-day decision making?

Author Chloe Benjamin explores the possibilities that come when one possesses just that kind of information in her recent bestseller, “The Immortalists.” The Gold siblings — Varya, Daniel, Klara and Simon — learn their fate dates one sultry summer afternoon in 1969 from a traveling gypsy, Bruna. And what starts as a spooky dare becomes the fulcrum for all four kids and the life journeys they embark upon.

So, would it make a difference for you? For Simon, knowing his Expire By date gave him the courage to accept a variety of certainties in his life, in particular, his sexuality. For Klara, the knowledge was a blessing and a curse, propelling her to live her dream in magic and illusion, but unable to shake her demons. Daniel and Varya, the older sibs, having been a tad more mature when visiting the gypsy, may have been able to rationalize the information more easily than Klara and Simon, but still can’t escape the truth. No matter how hard they try, Daniel can’t find the Rewind button and Varya can’t stop the march of Time.

This is the stuff that book clubs are made for — so much to debate:

  • Why is Simon so comfortable being reckless? Is he the most confident in his fate date because he was the youngest and most innocent when he received the information?
  • How much of a role do the siblings themselves play in each others’ fates? If Klara hadn’t suggested Simon move with her to California? If Klara hadn’t run from Eddie, would he have ever tracked down Daniel? If Varya hadn’t kept her secret?
  • Is Raj a kinda sorta scumbag, or a complete asshole?
  • From what does Gertie, the Gold matriarch, draw her strength?
  • And oh my God is Frida a giant fur-covered metaphor or what?

Some early reviews, while all pretty much positive, have knocked Benjamin for being too much of a show off in the research department when it comes to identifying locales and decades in and during which her characters reside. Not me — I like the color it provides. Sure, it can be a little cliche´, I feel like the story would be all the duller without it.

Benjamin expertly crafts the ins and outs of sibling love and disconnect, the warmth of a familial connection and the regret that comes from ignoring or failing to nurture those relationships biologically bestowed upon us. My heart ached for Varya inside the vivarium, but was buoyed by a hopeful end to the tale.

As for me — the thought of death is paralyzing. I’m not so naive as to believe I can escape it, no. In fact, losing family members suddenly has left me with the distinct impression that no one knows how much time they have on this planet. I’d like to think I live from day to day without impressive regret, but I also know I can’t eat Ding Dongs with a beer chaser for lunch every day. It’s all about moderation, right? In any case, my mind wanders to one of my favorite movies, “The Shawshank Redemption” and Andy’s iconic line about living and dying. Time to get busy.

Great book — don’t pass it up.

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