Review: The Stowaway & The Immortalists

Is it just me, or has January dashed by at an alarmingly rapid pace? I feel like I blinked a couple of times and suddenly it’s time for February, my kid has 2 new teeth and is trying to stand up, and my scale isn’t showing even a half pound of progress in the desired direction. 🙃 Damn, adulthood’s great. Am I right? 😜

In other news, I read some pretty good books this month (& a couple of great ones, like this and that).

One of those pretty good books: The Stowaway by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. This work of nonfiction covers the story of William “Billy” Gawronski, the son of Polish immigrants who is living in New York City during the 1920s — a time of great American pride and an insatiable thirst for adventure. When pilot and explorer Richard Byrd announced elaborate plans for an expedition to the South Pole and a winter stay in Antarctica, 18-year-old Billy knows exactly where he wants to be: on that ship, at all costs. So in the wee hours of an August morning, he jumps into the Hudson River, swims to the Bolling, and climbs aboard — much to the chagrin of his parents, who desperately want Billy to carry on the family business and dismiss these foolish notions of adventure.

Told in the style of narrative nonfiction — think storytelling rather than textbook — The Stowaway is a tale of the resilience of the human spirit, a kind of patriotic zest for life that seems so prevalent in the 30s and 40s and so absent today. (I can’t be the only one that feels this way, right? Like the recent decades are far less resilient or driven to less ambitious heights?) As with most narrative nonfiction, I found the cast of characters a bit hard to keep track of at times (which is natural, since there are so many more players in real life than in fiction). While I enjoyed the first half of the novel, I felt like things kind of lost steam in the second half.

Overall, this was a short read (<200 pages) that included some intriguing historical tidbits. It didn’t quite live up to my other NF favorites (Seabiscuit, Killers of the Flower Moon, and Into the Wild), but it’s a pretty good read nonetheless. 3.5 stars

Another new release for the month of January: The Immortalists, an extremely hyped-up title in the Bookstagram realm. This work of fiction by author Chloe Benjamin focuses on four siblings who seek out a fortuneteller in 1960s New York to discover the dates they will die. Childish curiosity comes with a price, though, as the four soon discover; and their lives will forever be altered by the ominous predictions made by the mysterious stranger in her cluttered apartment.

Varya, Daniel, Klara, and Simon start their lives close enough: the four share a room and all kinds of adventures as children. After the telling, though, their lives begin to follow distinctly different tracks: Simon and Klara head to San Francisco at ages 16 and 18, one to become a dancer, the other a magician; Daniel and Varya remain behind in New York to attend college and care for their mother after their father’s unexpected death. Resentment settles in as the elder siblings forego (some of) their dreams to take up duties the younger siblings can’t be bothered with.

Split into four sections — one for each of the Gold children — The Immortalists does pose a thrilling question for readers: if you knew the date your life would end, how would you live it? Would you play it safe, or live on the edge? My favorite aspect of this novel was the unraveling of each sibling’s life. Benjamin creates this really marvelous plot that becomes increasingly focused with each chapter and in the end, I was left feeling both empty and full at the same time, stricken by the characters’ outcomes.

My one gripe: Simon’s narrative. I hated it. His section of the novel is excessively sexually graphic, in my (admittedly prude) opinion. I’m okay with sex in books, but in this case the language and nature of these scenes just felt really out of place in the work. It was off-putting for me, enough so to make this book a 3-star read and one I’m glad I borrowed, rather than buying.

One thought on “Review: The Stowaway & The Immortalists

  1. Pingback: February TBR | Little Reader on the Prairie

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