Book Review: Away by Amy Bloom
Away by Amy Bloom (Random House, 2007)
When I wrote the short blurb on Away for the Jewesses with Attitude Summer Reading List, I don't think I really knew what I was getting into. Yes, it's true that Away is the story of Lillian Leyb, a young Jewish woman who immigrates to the United States after her family is killed in a pogrom. And yes, she sets off across the United States during the Jazz Age in search of her lost daughter Sophie. But this novel, which was rightfully awarded myriad awards when it came out last year, is so much more than that blurb.
First of all, there's Lillian. When we meet her, she's a nervous greenhorn who arrived at her cousin's apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan with the address pinned to the outside of her coat. But at once, we see that there's something purposeful and confident about Lillian. She surprises even herself and steps ahead of all the girls waiting for a job in Reuben Burstein's theater costume shop to assure herself a job. What she gets is a complex sexual role involving several members of the Burstein family. A different girl in Lillian's situation might have sat back and enjoyed the previously unknown luxuries of mistress-hood, or allowed herself to be taken advantage of, but Lillian enjoys herself only so much as to not forget her personal agenda: survival. Of course Lillian's world is turned upside down when she hears news that her daughter Sophie, thought to be killed in the pogrom, is in fact alive and in Siberia with the Pinsky family (operators and vultures all, but Sophie is alive!). Within pages Lillian is across the continent to Seattle, and this is where all the fun begins.
Beginning writers are always taught to have their characters WANT something -- it gives a story automatic tension, momentum even. And Lillian wants to find her daughter so much that neither she, nor Bloom, nor the reader can ever lose sight that Lillian's desire is the driving force of this narrative. And yet, in the course of her unbelieveably courageous pursuit, Lillian finds perhaps the most interesting cast of characters a woman could meet along the Pacific coast, and she manages to have adventures ranging from love and boredom in a women's prison to a long solo trek through North American tundra. Though Lillian's journey might stretch the limits of believeability, the sheer force of her longing for Sophie pulled me through this novel without a single moment of wondering if Lillian would actually cross continents to find her. Plus, she's funny and she holds her own in the face of seemingly unmoving forces intent of taking full advantage of her.
Aside from Lillian, whom I love, the historical narrative in this novel is remarkably subtle but clear. Lillian's march across the United States and Canada mirrors the process of Americanization in Eastern European Jewish immigrants of her time. Surely the process of learning to speak English and to eat unkosher foods, of becoming accustomed to the broader sexual mores of the United States, and of ultimately being sufficiently acculturated to be only slightly identifiable as a foreigner did not happen for most immigrants within the course of a few short years. But certainly it did happen over the course of the century or so that Ashkenazis have been in the United States en masse, and Lillian's odyssey shows us a glimpse of how.
Away is the kind of novel that you read quickly, gorging on the language and the story faster than you know is good for you, aware that you're not savoring every bite the way you ought to. But it's also the kind of book that sticks with you, that you want to go back to, and that you want your friends to read soon so that you can sit and talk about it together.
Next up: The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman. Stay Tuned!