Review by Dinah Fay
Amy Bloom’s second novel, Away (2007), begins like many Jewish immigration stories: Lillian Leyb arrives in New York and hustles to scrape together a new life after fleeing the pogroms that all but wiped out her small Russian village of Turov. The novel’s first act progresses pleasantly, following Lillian through the ranks of seamstresses to a position of (slightly tarnished) honor, as a beloved mistress to men in a first family of Yiddish theater. Bloom then throws in the key narrative twist, in the form of a cousin—assumed dead—who brings word that Lillian’s daughter, Sophie, may have escaped Turov alive. This is where Lillian’s journey begins in earnest.
The landscape of Away is wide, mirroring the novel’s insight that every immigrant story is, in fact, an epic. Lillian is not permitted to shift from her role as refugee into something more settled and comfortable, into an American life that is quiet if a little haunted. Rather, her ghosts drive her relentlessly onward. Traveling by rail and steamship, through California and British Columbia, on a grueling trek over the Bering Strait and ultimately back toward Russia in the quest to find her daughter, Lillian continually lives the mantra “As me muz, ken men” – when one must, one can.
In that sense, Lillian is an accidental heroine, resigned as she is resolved. She shows her mettle from the first act, as she vies for the attention of two generations of Bursteins in hopes of securing a position at the Goldfadn Theater:
Whatever it is like, Lillian doesn’t care. She will be the flower, the slave, the pretty thing or the despised and necessary thing, as long as she is the thing chosen from among the other things.
The specifics change from scene to scene, but on a fundamental level the stakes do not: Having lost everything in Turov, Lillian finds that survival is both the prime directive and a hollow sham. That said, the rendering of 1920s New York through Lillian’s eyes is a pleasure, from the Yiddish translations of Shakespeare to the finer points of extramarital housekeeping. Although plagued by nightmares, Lillian by day enjoys the taxis and cafés, her lovers, and the kindred souls who similarly go through the motions of living after their whole worlds have died. As the novel’s scope widens, so too do the iterations of that pain, carried by conductors and convicts, call girls and mountain men.
Amy Bloom’s greatest acclaim has come for her short stories, with nominations from the National Book Award for her collection Come to Me and from the National Book Critics Circle for A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You. Her chief literary gift is for characters, whom she conjures in mere moments and envisions with the generosity of an author who is also a practicing psychotherapist. Even those who make the most unforgivable choices do so for reasons that are recognizable, even sympathetic. Bloom’s devotion to nonjudgmental appraisal shines through Lillian, who “believes in luck and hunger (and greed, which is really just the rich man’s hunger —she doesn’t even mind anymore; that people are ruled by their wants seems a reliable truth).”
Perhaps the short story sensibility is responsible for the novel’s inverse pitfall, as well. Like so many other epic heroes, Lillian is less a fully-realized human than a lens through which to see others. By the final chapters, her interactions with lovers fall flat; Lillian is so world-weary from the opening pages, there is little room for development of romantic sensibilities. Bloom has created a lead character mostly from the drive to retrieve Sophie, which keeps the plot moving and the world coherent, but risks other flaws. Nevertheless, Away is a novel with a heart to match its landscape — expansive, piercingly beautiful, and more than a little bleak. In Lillian Leyb, Bloom has created a compelling candidate for the role of Odysseus in the modern Jewish immigrant canon.
Dinah Fay is a Brooklyn-based writer and educator. She blogs for The Rumpus and co-hosts the Brick City Speaks reading series in Newark, where she is pursuing an MFA in writing from Rutgers University. Follow her on Twitter @dinahfay.