I’m a bad English major. I judge the covers of books before I even consider reading them, despite everything I’ve ever been taught. When the “new releases” email popped into my inbox in January saying that Chloe Benjamin’s The Immoralists from Putnam listed, I wasn’t convinced to read it—the cover seemed to be trying to sell to that mass market of “beach readers.” However, I saw some of the pre-release reviews where critics only had good things to say and dubbed an instant New York Times Bestseller. I figured I should give it a try. After ordering and receiving the book (and being even more discouraged by the cover once I discovered there were some reflective spots imitating glitter/sequins), it sat on my shelf for a good month. I had some downtime this past week and decided to give it a shot, and I am so happy that I did. The cover is not at all reflective of the beautiful prose and storytelling present in this haunting and thought-provoking narrative.
Beginning with the four Gold children in the Lower East Side of the late 1960s, Benjamin immediately poses the novel’s biggest question to her readers: what would you do with the knowledge of the exact date of your death? What if that information came from a travelling psychic no one seems to fully trust, but at the same time everyone seems to revere? The Golds are just children—ages seven to 13—when they visit the woman in an afternoon that changes the rest of their lives and their relationships with one another. It’s the last summer they’re together as a family before they’re thrown into stark self-awareness and proceed through their lives, trying to build and grow into something despite knowing their own apparent timelines on this planet. The novel breaks into four sections, following each of the children and how they choose to live with this new and doomed enlightenment, navigating the depths of grief and avoiding the confrontation of death that keeps being flung into their faces.
Spanning four decades, Benjamin’s incredibly sad and poignant narrative explores what it means to have a familial bond broken and never repaired in this lifetime. As they grow away and apart from one another, each of the Gold children has an “it’ll happen soon” attitude towards reparations with one another, but there is that nagging sensation of knowing that “soon” won’t be soon enough if the psychic’s words have merit. Benjamin has created four intriguing and complex characters, each with entirely unique voices. These voices are all intertwined in such a delicate and heart-wrenching way, perfectly encapsulating the bittersweet memories and melancholy that come with growing up alongside—if not physically, emotionally—your siblings. Underlying the separation and distance between the Gold children is the beautiful connection shared between siblings, even in death. It is extraordinarily moving to watch these relationships grow and change and disintegrate, and hard not to cry out to these siblings while reading, yell at them for their decisions, fall into mourning with them as they lose what they love, learn with them what it means to have a family and love your family, despite what you’ve grown up thinking and resenting. It’s frustrating and heartbreaking to move through life with these characters, watching their siblings lives “…snaking into unfamiliar underbrush” (page 188).
Even if you have nothing in common with any of the four Gold siblings, Benjamin makes it irresistible to connect with every single one of them in different and intimate ways, learning things about yourself as they learn how to cope with loss, grief, and a knowledge they wish they didn’t have and hadn’t asked for. The author has a knack for capturing those in-between moments without missing a beat, describing the thoughts racing through a character’s head in that solitary beat between dialogue for several paragraphs without ever dragging you from the scene. Her ability for describing those tiny details—the bracelets someone is wearing or the way the wind smells—is what creates those scenes that make your heart thump a little louder and a little slower, making you feel everything her characters are feeling.
Not only is her writing impressive, but Benjamin has posed to her readers a fascinating idea: the ability to see the beginning and endpoints of your life, then deciding what to do with the limited time you know you have. Many people do not think about the inevitability of death in the concrete way Benjamin presents, normally saying something to the effect of “I hope to die of old age in my sleep,” whenever a discussion of abstract death veers too close to concrete loss. Reading this novel presents an opportunity to reflect on your own life, think about what you would do with that kind of knowledge and how you would spend your restricted time. What would you have done differently at this point in your life? How do you live with as few regrets as possible? Who do you choose to hurt in order to live your best life, your truth?
A heavy novel, yet it’s filled with so many light and touching moments. It will make you think about the choices you make just a touch more, it will make you appreciate those closest to you and the fragility of life more seriously, and it will stick with you for a long time after reading about the Golds’ journeys.
Emily Walters is currently an MA student and social media editor for the minnesota review.