BOOK: Away by Amy Bloom (2008)

Lillian Leyb is a 22 year-old Jewish wife and mother with a happy life, a solid (if uninspiring) marriage, and a warm home.  One night, however, everything changes when her entire family — her husband and both her parents — are brutally killed right in front of her by men with axes, a Russian pogrom.  Desperate to save her 4 year-old daughter Sophie, Lillian shoves her out the back door, tells her to run, and never sees her again.

Told later by a relative that Sophie had been seen floating dead in the local river, identified by the bright ribbons in her hair, Lillian packs up her grief, stuffs it deep into her suitcase, and does the only thing she can think of — she gets on a ship bound for New York City, leaving the bones of her old life, her husband, her daughter, her parents, behind.

In America, she connects with a cousin and soon finds work as a (very bad) seamstress at the Goldfadn Yiddish Theatre.  The theater is owned by an older man, Reuben, and his handsome young (closeted gay) son Meyer.  Spotting an opportunity to rein in Meyer’s lifestyle, or at least his image, Reuben convinces him to marry Lillian and she agrees, recognizing the wealthy union as extremely practical.  Meyer has no interest in her romantically, but he’s a decent enough man, and when Reuben becomes enamored with her, Lillian offers herself up to him, as much for the human contact and connection as anything else.

Just as Lillian has begun to settle into her new life — not a great one, but it’ll do — another cousin shows up at her door with news that brings her to her knees:  Sophie’s alive.  She was rescued by another local Jewish family, the cousin says, who managed to escape with her to Siberia, where they are now living under a new name, completely safe.  Alive.  Alive.  And safe.

Desperate to find her daughter, Lillian turns to her closest friend in New York, an elderly, sharp, caring gentleman named Yaakov — a fellow survivor of horror.  Yaakov, though crushed to learn Lillian plans to leave, nevertheless teaches her everything she’ll need to know to cross the country to Alaska, where she can safely pass through the Bering Strait into Siberia (attempting to go in through Europe, Yaakov says, would be suicide).  He gives her money, a sturdy leather satchel, and a thesaurus, and Lillian packs her belongings, says her goodbyes, and boards the train west.

From there, Lillian’s quest to Sophie takes us on an incredible tour of the U.S., from her first stop in Chicago, to the black quarter of Seattle (where she stays for a tumultuous time with a lively prostitute named Gumdrop), and finally deep into the Alaskan wild, where Lillian nearly dies more than once and ultimately finds her salvation.

This is an absolutely stunning novel, featuring the kind of brilliant writing that makes all other writing (especially my own) seem utterly pointless.  Lillian is a lover of language, and so clearly is Amy Bloom.  Several sentences — simple turns of phrase — made me gasp, others had me panting for more.  And all the while, I lived and breathed through Lillian, seeing everything, feeling everything, wanting everything.  The ending may strike some as pat; it made me weep.

Read this one.


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4 Responses to “BOOK: Away by Amy Bloom (2008)”

  1. Rolanda Says:

    Damn, now I will have to go spend some money on this book…as I will not be able to wait to read it. Lovely review Meg. I hope I love it as much as you did.

    P.S. Your review of Darling Jim made me want to read that book too…ha…even though you say it was awful!


  2. Liz Says:

    Rolanda – I agree; Meg’s reviews are always interesting, even if the subject being reviewed isn’t! This book does sound good, and I can totally see being intrigued by the premise of the other one. What a gyp that it didn’t turn out to be good!

  3. Kathleen Says:

    You know, I ordered a book of short stories by Amy Bloom and received the book just yesterday. I better get reading because I want to read this book too!

  4. megwood Says:

    Ooh, let me know if you like the short stories?

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