Away (Bloom)

Amy Bloom, 2007
Random House
256 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780812977790

Panoramic in scope, Away is the epic and intimate story of young Lillian Leyb, a dangerous innocent, an accidental heroine. When her family is destroyed in a Russian pogrom, Lillian comes to America alone, determined to make her way in a new land. When word comes that her daughter, Sophie, might still be alive, Lillian embarks on an odyssey that takes her from the world of the Yiddish theater on New York’s Lower East Side, to Seattle’s Jazz District, and up to Alaska, along the fabled Telegraph Trail toward Siberia.

All of the qualities readers love in Amy Bloom’s work-her humor and wit, her elegant and irreverent language, her unflinching understanding of passion and the human heart-come together in the embrace of this brilliant novel, which is at once heartbreaking, romantic, and completely unforgettable. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio 
Education—B.A. Weslyan University; M.S.W. Smith College
Awards—Costa Award
Currently—lives in Connecticut, USA

Amy Bloom is the author of Come to Me, a National Book Award finalist; A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award; Love Invents Us; and Normal. 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. Bloom teaches creative writing at Yale University.  

Bloom pubished her first novel, Away, in 2008. Another collection of stories, Where the God of Love Hangs Out, was published in 2010.  (From the publisher.)

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. Although not a psychologist, her involvement with psychotherapy played a role in writing the Lifetime Television network TV show, State of Mind, which takes a look at the professional lives of psychiatrists. Bloom is listed as one of the writers for the series and a co-executive producer.

Bloom received her B.A. from Wesleyan University, and a M.S.W. (Masters of Social Work) from Smith College. Bloom is divorced and has two daughters and a son. She resides in Connecticut. (From Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews
Away is a modest name for a book as gloriously transporting as Amy Bloom's new novel. Alive with incident and unforgettable characters, it sparkles and illuminates as brilliantly as it entertains. The accomplishment is even more remarkable given the seeming drabness of the story Ms. Bloom tells. She offers a ridiculously beautiful account of a 1926 transcontinental schlep by an immigrant Jewish seamstress from New York toward Siberia in search of her young daughter…To the extent that a work of fiction can be all things to all people, this one is remarkably versatile. Away is a literary triumph, a book-club must and a popular novel destined for wide readership. It is accessible to the point of pure enthrallment without compromising its eloquence or thematic strength. Yet it is also a classic page-turner, one that delivers a relentlessly good read.
Janet Maslin - New York Times

This whole novel reads like dry wood bursting into flame: desperate and impassioned, erotic and moving—absolutely hypnotic...nobody wastes any time in this novel, particularly the author. The whole saga hurtles along, a rush of horrible, remarkable ordeals: One minute Lillian is jumping into a deadly menage a trois, the next she's beating a porcupine to death with her shoe and eating it. Not every woman could pull that off. Each chapter reads like a compressed novel, a form that works only because Bloom can establish new characters and grab our sympathies so quickly. One of her most striking techniques is the way she periodically lets little tendrils of the story push ahead, shooting into the future to spin out the stories of characters Lillian encounters along the way. Lives bloom or wither in these asides, and then we're back with Lillian once more as she trudges on, inexorably, toward her daughter. And so what begins as a paean to the immigrant spirit in a city of millions is ultimately a gasp of wonder at the persistence of love, even in the remotest spot on earth. Hang on.
Ron Charles - Washington Post

Her execution is exquisite, and exquisite execution is rare–not only in books but (alas) in almost any undertaking…The pleasures of Away are the ordinary pleasures of extraordinary novels: finely wrought prose, vivid characters, delectable details. There’s a soft-smile, along-the-way humor.... A practicing psychotherapist, this author combines eloquence with insight.
Los Angeles Times

Amy Bloom is blessed with a generous heart and a brilliant imagination, which is evident once again in her fifth and best book so far, Away.... The vividness and tenderness with which Bloom tells this story is stunning. Bloom, who teaches writing at Yale University and is also a practicing psychotherapist, has an innate understanding of the complexity of the human heart and in Lillian, she has created her most compelling character yet.
Hartford Courant

Life is no party for Lillian Leyb, the 22-year-old Jewish immigrant protagonist of Bloom's outstanding fifth novel: her husband and parents were killed in a Russian pogrom, and the same violent episode separated her from her three-year-old daughter, Sophie. Arriving in New York in 1924, Lillian dreams of Sophie, and after five weeks in America, barely speaking English, she outmaneuvers a line of applicants for a seamstress job at the Goldfadn Yiddish Theatre, where she becomes the mistress of both handsome lead actor Meyer Burstein and his very connected father, Reuben. Her only friend in New York, tailor/actor/playwright Yaakov Shimmelman, gives her a thesaurus and coaches her on American culture. In a last, loving, gesture, Yaakov secures Lillian passage out of New York to begin her quest to find Sophie. The journey—through Chicago by train, into Seattle's African-American underworld and across the Alaskan wilderness—elevates Bloom's novel from familiar immigrant chronicle to sweeping saga of endurance and rebirth. Encompassing prison, prostitution and poetry, Yiddish humor and Yukon settings, Bloom's tale offers linguistic twists, startling imagery, sharp wit and a compelling vision of the past. Bloom has created an extraordinary range of characters, settings and emotions. Absolutely stunning.
Publishers Weekly

Full of pathos, humor, and often heartbreaking beauty, this novel tells the story of immigrant life and the caring of others without being maudlin or didactic.

A Russian Jewish woman's struggles to survive in America, then recapture the past brutally stolen from her, are recorded with eloquent compression in this striking second novel from National Book Award nominee Bloom. In a brisk narrative of the events of two crowded years (1924-26), we encounter immigrant Lillian Leyb working as a seamstress on New York's Lower East Side, and becoming mistress to both theater owner Reuben Burstein and his homosexual son Meyer (a popular matinee idol). Lillian's stoicism masks the terror that haunts her in recurring dreams-of the massacre of her family by "goyim" revenging themselves on Jews sharing the meager resources of their village (Turov) and of the reported subsequent death of her beloved daughter Sophie. When another relative newly arrived in America reports that Sophie lives (having been rescued by a family that moved on to Siberia), Lillian embarks on a complex pilgrimage that takes her to Seattle and points north. She survives being robbed and beaten, bonds with a resourceful black prostitute, is sent for her own safety to a women's work farm by the one man (widowed constable Arthur Gilpin) who seems not to have sexual designs on her, then makes her way across the Yukon to the Alaskan coast, encountering a refugee exiled following an accidental killing, John Bishop, who will be either her last best hope of finding Sophie or the alternative to a life of ceaseless wandering and suffering. Summary doesn't do justice to this compact epic's richness of episode and characterization, nor to the exemplary skill with which Bloom increases her story's resonance through dramaticforeshadowing of what lies ahead for her grifters and whores and romantic visionaries and stubborn, hard-bitten adventurers. Echoes of Ragtime, Cold Mountain and Irving Howe's World of Our Fathers, in an amazingly dense, impressively original novel.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions 
1. Dreams are a recurring theme in the novel. What are Lillian’s dreams, both literal and metaphorical? How do these illustrate or inform the larger subject of the American dream?

2. Much of the novel centers around self-invention and reinvention. Can you identify some characters who invent themselves over the course of the novel? Which characters are successful? Which characters are unable to complete the process?

3. According to folktales, “when you save the golden fish, the turbaned djinn, the talking cat, he is yours forever” (p. 43). Which characters in the novel are saved, in one way or another? Which characters do the saving?

4. “Not that she is mine. That I am hers,” Lillian says, describing her love for Sophie (p. 79). In many ways, love is the primary engine of the plot. How does love define, inspire, and compel characters in the novel? What are some of the things characters do for love? Do you think that love is portrayed in the novel as a wholly positive force?

5. Contrast Yaakov’s story with Lillian’s. How do they each handle the loss of spouse and children, and how are they changed?

6. Mythology—both the mythology of individuals and of cultures—is an important motivator in the novel. Which stories or beliefs drive different characters? How do established myths inform the journeys taken and the challenges faced by Lillian as she crosses the American continent?

7. During Lillian’s journey, there are key points at which she is required to demonstrate her allegiance as either a native or a foreigner, insider or outsider. Can you identify some of these moments? At the end of the novel, how complete is Lillian’s assimilation?

8. Relationships between family members, particularly parents and children, play an important role in the novel. Compare and contrast the relationships between Lillian and Sophie, Reuben and Meyer, Chinky and the Changs. What is distinct about each family? Are there similarities?

9. How are sexuality and physical love portrayed in the novel? Consider Lillian’s relationship with the Bursteins, Chinky’s relationship with Mrs. Mortimer, and Gumdrop’s relationship with Snooky Salt, as well as Lillian’s relationship with John Bishop and Chinky’s relationship with Cleveland Munson.

10. What kind of person is Lillian? What do we learn, throughout the novel, about her passions and prejudices? Do you think Lillian is right when she says that she is lucky (p. 4)?

11. The omniscient third-person narrator of the novel is able to jump forward and backward in time and between parallel narratives. What is the purpose of this technique? Why does the author want us to know what happened to Sophie, even though Lillian herself never learns? Do you think Lillian ever stopped looking for Sophie?

12. The metaphors and descriptive images in this novel are unique. Can you point out a few effective metaphors that helped the novel come alive for you as a reader?

13. What significance do the chapter titles have? What are they derived from, and what do they tell the reader about what happens in the novel? Why did Bloom title her novel Away?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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