In the half-humid boring simmer of 1969, something creates the atmosphere required for a pilgrimage when four siblings--Klara, Varya, Simon, and Daniel--decide to go their own way. Benjamin's story starts with a secret, a challenge. The Gold children have been asking around; they've heard of the woman, a nomad on Hester Street who reportedly tells fortunes, as well as what'll happen in your life--whether you'll have a good one or a bad one, and also when you'll actually die. Some of the residents at 72 Clinton Street know of the woman: "You wanna know your future? Look in the mirror," she says.
First to test the woman's premonitions is Simon, who runs away to San Francisco with Klara. He's afraid to reinvent himself in a place that has always been home. In San Francisco, he can be himself, though he wonders whether the woman on Hester Street is right. While Klara decides she wants to do magic, Simon gets a job at Castro bar. They recall their father, Saul, who died suddenly. Simon still feels cheated, robbed of a final memory. His mother, Gertie, remains at home with obedient Varya, who wants to study biology, and Daniel, who hopes to be a military doctor.
For years, none of the children have ever discussed the premonitions. The mere thought of them makes everything feel "urgent, glittering and precious." Here in the City by the Bay, the real world is surely more exciting than whatever is in the woman's "black box." Klara affects a worldly-wise attitude. The voice messages arrive daily: Gertie's emotional missives, Daniel's lawyerly arguments, and increasingly desperate appeals from Varya. Klara finds an apartment in the Castro, the two-block heaven of which Simon has dreamed for years. The move makes him feel as though he is glimpsing his future life. In The Ballet Academy of San Francisco, he becomes expertly majestic, invisibly strong, just like the other male dancers. Simon "takes his guilt and turns it into a leap, a lift, one perfect turn."
Each Gold child gets a turn to tell their story in a narrative where emotions get battered from one to another. The decision to not return to New York finally gives Simon relief from the secrets of his former home. His mother has relinquished him, given him to the world of which he's longed to be a part. Meanwhile, San Francisco is changing--the hippies, the Diggers, and the psychedelic gatherings in Golden Gate Park. Simon thinks of the club downstairs he passed, full of young men and "a dizzying purple light." He feels high, remembering how it felt to dance with "those beautiful sculptured men" and to be adored.
While I found Simon's story the most powerful, especially when he finds himself front and center in the AIDS crisis, also heartbreaking are his siblings and their cavalcade of family secrets. Klara's husband, Raj, has big plans for her act: new costumes, new business cards, bigger venues. Damaged Klara loves Raj, "the jolt of his energy, his genius in animating objects." Klara understands the loneliness of parenting and memory. She also wants a magical remedy for whatever burdens Varya and Daniel might carry.
Daniel rarely acts with courage; he regrets that Simon had to hide his sexuality in life. He believes in bad choices and in bad luck, not so much memory of the woman on Hester Street that is sometimes "like a miniscule needle in his stomach," something he swallowed long ago which floats undetectable. Varya, who works as a researcher at the Drake Institute for Research of Aging, knows that stories have the power to change things, the past and the future and the present. She feels a constant foreboding that ruin looms behind her "like a shadow."
The novel shows the inevitable cracks of time, of children inexorably separating and adults being drawn together through attraction and loneliness. While Klara tragically explores what is missing from her life, Varya's belief in the value of science causes her to misjudge the needs of one of the rhesus monkeys in her care. Mixed among their family history are Daniel, Varya, Klara, and Simon's life choices. The Immortalists is juxtaposes lives from the past to the present, the allure of magic filtered through the lens of age and experience.