Perhaps nothing would have happened were it not the pit of summer, with a month and a half of humid boredom behind them and a month and a half ahead. There is no air-conditioning in the apartment, and this year – the summer of 1969 – it seems something is happening to everyone but them. People are getting wasted at Woodstock and singing ‘Pinball Wizard’ and watching Midnight Cowboy, which none of the Gold children are allowed to see. They’re rioting outside Stonewall, ramming the doors with uprooted parking meters, smashing windows and jukeboxes. They’re being murdered in the most gruesome imaginable, their faces transmitted with horrifying immediacy to the television in the Golds’ kitchen. ‘They’re walking on the mother*fing moon’ said Daniel, who has begun to use this sort of language, but only at a safe remove from their mother. James Earl Ray is sentenced, and so is Sirhan Sirhan, and all the while the Golds play or darts or rescue Zoya [the cat]…
But something else created the atmosphere required for this pilgrimage: they are siblings, this summer, in a way they never will be again.
commentary: This passage, near the beginning of the book, gave me great hope for it. I presume Benjamin wasn’t born in 1969, and this is a much better way of shoehorning in the details of the time than the usual would-be casual dropping in of carefully looked-up facts. And, the sense of yearning and missing out must be familiar to anyone who was a young person in any era, that feeling that it is all going on without you, and by the time you are old enough it will be too late. (Though young people living in an apartment in the Lower East Side of New York would seem pretty enviable to the rest of us, also at any time, in terms of the excitements vs the boredom of life).
And then – the setup is wonderful: these four young people are going to see a fortune-teller, one who will tell each of them the date on which he or she will die. And then the book will follow the story of each of them, to find out if the predictions will come true. A most enticing idea.
And bits of it really lived up to that promise. The children had very distinct fates, and one becomes an illusionist, something that is always engrossing.
Klara won’t be a woman who is sawed in half or tied in chains – nor will she be rescued or liberated. She’ll save herself. She’ll be the saw.But, it became less rewarding as it went on. There is a certain kind of American novel that I rudely describe as ‘And then we went uptown and then we went downtown and then it was Thanksgiving’: lists of events with mysterious trails of meaning, the author saying ‘make what you can of them’. This book did not live up to its original promise that it would not be like that. Benjamin is very imaginative, and seemed to do a good job of getting inside the different siblings’ heads. But after about the first third, I wasn’t anxious to know what happened, excited or amazed by it. It just went on. And there were family falling outs and discussions and it wasn’t that interesting. One amazon reviewer said that the siblings’ fates ‘are relentlessly downbeat and veer between the predictable and the outlandish’, which seemed a fair description.
I thought the book would be full of consideration as to how knowing the date of your death would affect your decisions (and I have read reviews that say this IS the central theme of the book) but to me this was entirely missing. As close as we get is this - one character wondering if the prediction could be similar to taking a miracle drug…
Klara and Simon believed they had taken pills with the power to change their lives, not knowing that they had taken a placebo – not knowing that the consequences originated in their own minds.And although the opening created a marvelously spooky atmosphere, that just disappeared.
It is a solid, well-constructed, well-written book, and has become a huge bestseller: good for her.
The pictures are fashion adverts from that year, showing the kind of life the children feel they can only enjoy as spectators. One passing character in the book wears ‘purple-tinged glasses and unbuttoned paisley shirt.’