Wednesday, January 3, 2018

THE IMMORTALISTS :: Chloe Benjamin

I'm a sucker for a tree. When I started this book, the beautiful cover is only thing I could remember about it other than the praise I read somewhere (thank you, whoever won me over with their words). Other than the main concept, I had no clue what I was heading into and damn if it didn't almost make me cry (I am not a book crier).

New York, summer of '69. The Gold siblings (Varya, Daniel, Klara and Simon) hear tell of "The Woman on Hester Street" with fortune-telling powers. Specifically, she can foresee the date of one's death.

So this is how it started: as a secret, a challenge, a fire escape they used to dodge the hulking mass of their mother, who demanded that they hang laundry or get the goddamn cat out of the stovepipe whenever she found them lounging in the bunk room. The Gold children asked around. The owner of a magic shop in Chinatown had heard of the woman on Hester Street. She was a nomad, he told Klara, traveling around the country, doing her work.

Of course, the Gold kids track the woman down and knock on her door. Individually, they meet with her to learn the day they will die, a date they are told to keep secret. Over the course of the next several decades and hundreds of pages, Benjamin delves deeply into the lives of each sibling and how the words of the Woman on Hester Street impacted their futures and choices.

I was immediately immersed in the world of the four Gold kids, their family and the people they encounter on their wildly varied paths through life. Each is deeply and intimately drawn. This is one of those books I was drawn to read and couldn't wait to pick up each day. This is in no small part due to the lovely writing of Chloe Benjamin:

About the Golds' father, Saul, a tailor, who "works with total absorption, as if what he is sewing is not the hem of a men's pant leg but the fabric of the universe..."
About their mother, Gertie, who "sits shiva with a devoutness Simon did not know she could muster, for Gertie has always believed in superstition more than any God. She spits three times when a funeral goes by, throws salt if the shaker falls over, and never passed a cemetery while pregnant, which required the family to endure constant rerouting between 1956 and 1962. Each Friday, she observes the Sabbath with effortful patience, as if the Sabbath is a guest she can't wait to get rid of.
On cool days, breeze from the window ruffled the family trees and old photos she keeps taped to the wall beside her bed. Through these documents, she tracks the mysterious, underground brokering of traits: genes flicking on and off and on again, her grandfather Lev's rangy legs skipping Saul for Daniel.

It's details like these that paint a full portrait of the family straight to the very edge of the frame and then some. Watching each Gold sibling take off on his or her individual path while influenced by their parents, siblings, and knowledge of their supposed date of death was joyous and heartbreaking. Diving into issues of family, love, friendship, destiny, fate and self-actualization, Benjamin has penned a wondrously beautiful story full of life, even though steeped in issues of death.

STREET SENSE: After I finished reading, I saw this billed somewhere as The First Great Novel of 2018. I can't disagree, it blew my socks off. If you like character-driven plots full of adventure and thoughtfulness, this will be right up your alley.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE: In New York, he would live for them, but in San Francisco, he could live for himself. And though he does not like to think about it, though he in fact avoids the subject pathologically, he allows himself to think it now: What if the woman on Hester Street is right, and the next few years are his last? The mere thought turns his life a different color; it makes everything feel urgent, glittering, precious.

COVER NERD SAYS: I mentioned sucker for a tree, right? I was powerless over this art work. The tree even works its way through the letters, binding everything together. Symbolism, schmymbolism, it's just plain purty.

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About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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