(Reviewed by Poornima Apte OCT 16, 2007)
In the mid 1920’s 22-year-old Lillian Leyb lands in New York City having escaped a bloody pogrom back home in Russia. She has lost her husband and her parents and despite having tried to save her little daughter Sophie, Lillian is told she is gone too.
Having nothing left back home, she decides to rely on the good graces of a cousin in New York. She lands in the New World, desperately poor, with no useful skills to speak of and no English with which to make a new life. But she does have a fierce drive to make a way for herself no matter what. So it is that she presents herself for the job of a seamstress at the Goldfadn Theater. Understanding, as her father had once told her, that she needs to make her own luck, Lillian uses all her charms to land the job: “She will be the flower, the slave, the pretty thing or the despised and necessary thing, as long as she is chosen from among the other things,” Bloom writes.
The owners, Meyer and Reuben Burnstein, are impressed and as it turns out, Lillian does become the flower and the pretty thing for not just the secretly gay, matinee idol Meyer Burnstein, but also for his father, Reuben. If she has to be a mistress to both, juggle sex (or not) with both, so be it. Whenever she can, she also relentlessly learns English through use of a dictionary and her favorite, a thesaurus.
As life takes on some sense of routine if not normalcy, along comes cousin Raisele from the old World with big news: Sophie is alive. Not dead. Bloom’s prose always simmers with vitality but in describing the immediate aftermath of this news on Lillian, she really shines. “Sophie’s name is a match to dry wood,” writes Bloom and now Lillian is as if one possessed. “The fire will not go out.”
Lillian must retrace her path back and find her daughter—it becomes her one all-consuming goal. A friend chalks her a precarious path that takes her across North America, into Alaska, and across the Bering Straits into Siberia. All with a little over seven dollars in her pocket.
Lillian travels on and on and on meeting all kinds of people on her way—breaking journey only if she must. “Lillian follows the people who look most like herself: dressed badly but for all eventualities, cleaned up but not clean, and moving like small, scared fish in a very big pond.” Bloom’s descriptions of the essence of travel are beautiful as in here: “She smells people leaving, sweat and bombazine, rubber, cheese, someone has brought his garlic salami with him, rye bread and lavender and beer, baby shit.”
Lillian travels in a train’s broom closet all the way until Seattle and even for this appalling accommodation, she must grant sexual favors. But of course, nothing really shocks or surprises Lillian anymore—someone who has lost all and seen death up close.
As Lillian moves on from one encounter to the other, in small interesting asides, Bloom expertly fast-forwards the lives of the people the 22-year-old meets so you get to see what happens to them after their lives intersect Lillian’s.
By the time she reaches Alaska, Lillian is tired and sore—her “body a map of pain, each mark tells its story clearly.” But the fire rages on.
Early on in Away, before Lillian embarks on her adventure, a friend asks her: “You already live without your little girl--why not go on living without her? Because she belongs to you? Is that why?”
“…Because she is a little, little girl,“ answers Lillian, “Not that she is mine. That I am hers.”
That this thesis is enough to have Lillian travel thousands of miles in sheer desperation literally to the very ends of the earth is utterly and gut-wrenchingly believable. Away is a beautiful, panoramic description of a journey all packed in 234 pages.Lillian Leyb simply must do this. We understand. Completely. After all, as Bloom puts it, “Hope is everyone’s mirage.” Why should it be any different for Lillian Leyb?
- Amazon readers rating: from 144 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Away at Random House
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Come to Me : Stories (1993)
- Love Invents Us (1998)
- A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You : Stories (2000)
- Away (August 2007)
- Where the God of Love Hangs Out: Stories (January 2010)
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- Official website for Amy Bloom
- Identity Theory interview with Amy Bloom
- Critical Mass interview with Amy Bloom
- Guardian Unlimited interview with Amy Bloom
- The New York Times review of Come to Me
- The New York Times review of A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You
- LA Times review of Away
- The New York Times review of Away
- MostlyFiction.com review of Where the God of Love Hangs Out
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About the Author:
Amy Bloom was born in 1953. She received her B.A. from Wesleyan University, and a M.S.W. (Masters of Social Work) from Smith College. Trained as a social worker, Bloom has practiced psychotherapy and is currently a part-time lecturer of Creative Writing at the department of English at Yale University.
Her stories have appeared in Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Short Stories, The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction, and many other anthologies here and abroad. She has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Vogue, Slate, and Salon, among other publications, and has won a National Magazine Award.
Her collection of short stories, Come to Me, was a National Book Award finalist; and A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Bloom resides in Connecticut. She is the mother of three adult children.