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The Immortalists
Author:Chloe Benjamin

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin





About the Book


It’s 1969, and holed up in a grimy tenement building in New York’s Lower East Side is a travelling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the date they will die. The four Gold children, too young for what they’re about to hear, sneak out to learn their fortunes.

Over the years that follow, the siblings must choose how to live with the prophecies the fortune-teller gave them that day. Will they accept, ignore, cheat or defy them? Golden-boy Simon escapes to San Francisco, searching for love; dreamy Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician; eldest son Daniel tries to control fate as an army doctor after 9/11; and bookish Varya looks to science for the answers she craves.

A sweeping novel of remarkable ambition and depth, The Immortalists is a story about how we live, how we die, and what we do with the time we have.





For my grandmother, Lee Krug






ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS


I am profoundly grateful for the many people who helped bring The Immortalists to life.

This book would not have been possible without the belief, labor, and advocacy of two incredible women. To my rock star and soul sister of an agent, Margaret Riley King: thank you for your faith, your loyalty, and your biweekly therapy sessions. Every time, it starts with you. To my editor, Sally Kim: your brilliance, passion, and integrity shine so brightly. Working with you has been one of the great honors, and pleasures, of my life.

I couldn’t have dreamed of more superb teams at WME and Putnam. It’s a privilege to work with Tracy Fisher, Erin Conroy, Erika Niven, Haley Heidemann, and Chelsea Drake at the former, and with Ivan Held, Danielle Dieterich, Christine Ball, Alexis Welby, Ashley McClay, Emily Ollis, and Katie McKee at Putnam, as well as the full Penguin team. My thanks, too, to Gail Berman, Dani Gorin, Joe Earley, and Rory Koslow at Jackal for their work in the TV arena.

I am indebted to the many writers, filmmakers, scientists, and other professionals whose work was pivotal to my research process. Essential sources include A subtle craft in several worlds: Performance and participation in Romani fortune-telling (Ruth Elaine Andersen); David Weissman’s documentary I Was Here; Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear (Jim Steinmeyer); and the life of Tiny Kline, a groundbreaking circus performer who originated the Jaws of Life and inspired the character of Klara Sr. (Circus Queen and Tinker Bell: The Memoir of Tiny Kline, Janet M. David). Lt. Scott Gregory served as a crucial advisor for Daniel’s military career; Erika Flevry, Deborah Robbins, and Bob Ingersoll kindly shared their experiences with primates. The Drake was inspired by the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Novato, California, though my version is, besides building features and general mission, entirely fictionalized. Finally, I couldn’t have written Varya’s section were it not for the many scientists whose longevity research informed her own, and who were so generous as to speak with me, including Drs. Ricki Colman, Stefano Piraino, and Daniel Martinez, as well as staff from the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center. Varya’s research emerged from this background but is, like the Drake, fictionalized and not meant as commentary on specific existing work.

Eternal love for, and thanks to, the family members and dear friends who served as early readers and offered assistance. My parents are my fiercest and most faithful supporters; I am so grateful, and so lucky, to be your child. My beloved grandmother and guiding light, Lee Krug, was the first person to read this novel. Among my brilliant friends, I am thankful for Alexandra Goldstein’s editing genius and lifelong devotion; Rebecca Dunham’s intellectual companionship; Brittany Cavallaro’s passionate solidarity; and Piyali Bhattacharya’s wise, beating heart, as well as the sisterhood of Alexandra Demet and the brotherhood of Andrew Kay. Marge Warren and Bob Benjamin gave me the gift of insight into immigrant and mid-twentieth-century life in New York City. Judy Mitchell continues to be a mentor and dear friend.

To Jordan and Gabriel, my siblings: this book is for you, too.

And, my God, what is there to say for Nathan? It isn’t easy to be the partner of a writer, but I would think you do it effortlessly if I didn’t know how much mind-bending conversation, editorial work, and emotional support it requires. You have the most abiding heart and the quickest brain and the kind of panoramic perspective that steadies even fluttery birds like me. Forever, thank you.





PROLOGUE


The Woman on Hester Street


1969

Varya


Varya is thirteen.

New to her are three more inches of height and the dark patch of fur between her legs. Her breasts are palm sized, her nipples pink dimes. Her hair is waist length and medium brown – not the black of her brother Daniel’s or Simon’s lemon curls, not Klara’s glint of bronze. In the morning, she plaits it in two French braids; she likes the way they whisk her waist, like horses’ tails. Her tiny nose is no one’s, or so she thinks. By twenty, it will have risen to assume its full, hawkish majesty: her mother’s nose. But not yet.

They wind through the neighborhood, all four of them: Varya, the eldest; Daniel, eleven; Klara, nine; and Simon, seven. Daniel leads the way, taking them down Clinton to Delancey, turning left at Forsyth. They walk the perimeter of Sara D. Roosevelt Park, keeping to the shade beneath the trees. At night, the park turns rowdy, but on this Tuesday morning there are only a few clumps of young people sleeping off the previous weekend’s protests, their cheeks pressed to the grass.

At Hester, the siblings become quiet. Here they must pass Gold’s Tailor and Dressmaking, which their father owns, and though it is not likely he’ll see them – Saul 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 – he is still a threat to the magic of this muggy July day and its precarious, trembling object, which they have come to Hester Street to find.

Though Simon is the youngest, he’s quick. He wears a pair of handed-down jean shorts from Daniel, which fit Daniel at the same age but sag around Simon’s narrow waist. In one hand, he carries a drawstring bag made of a chinoiserie fabric. Inside, dollar bills rustle and coins shimmy their tin music.

‘Where is this place?’ he asks.

‘I think it’s right here,’ Daniel says.

They look up at the old building – at the zigzag of the fire escapes and the dark, rectangular windows of the fifth floor, where the person they have come to see is said to reside.

‘How do we get inside?’ Varya asks.

It looks remarkably like their apartment building, except that it’s cream instead of brown, with five floors instead of seven.

‘I guess we ring the buzzer,’ Daniel says. ‘The buzzer for the fifth floor.’