Synopses & Reviews
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.
"'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 after receiving word that Sophie is living in Siberia, 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 (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"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....[A] literary triumph." Janet Maslin, The New York Times
"[Bloom's] execution is exquisite, and exquisite execution is rare....The pleasures of Away are the ordinary pleasures of extraordinary novels: finely wrought prose, vivid characters, delectable details....Working comfortably within a conventional form, she renews and redeems it." Lionel Shriver, The Los Angeles Times
"[A] memorable, panoramic novel...that encapsulate[s] all the cultural richness that newcomers contributed to this nation of immigrants....[L]ike the best of artists, Bloom...tells the truth freely, and with a warmth that melts all fears. (Grade: A)" Entertainment Weekly
"[A] magnificent, transcendent work of the imagination. It is the first must-read novel of the fall....Bloom has always been an economical writer more attuned to characters' lives than the backdrop against which they unfold. In Away, however, she manages to do both." Minneapolis Star Tribune
"[T]his whole novel reads like dry wood bursting into flame: desperate and impassioned, erotic and moving absolutely hypnotic....The whole saga hurtles along, a rush of horrible, remarkable ordeals." Ron Charles, The Washington Post Book World
"This beautiful, effulgent book sped me forward word by word, out of the room I was in and into Amy Bloom's world. This is a wonderful novel, a cosmos that transcends its time period and grabs us without compromise. Lillian's astonishing journey, driven by a mother's love, will be with me for a long, long time." Ron Carlson, author of The Speed of Light
"I haven't read a novel in a long time that I genuinely wanted to get back to, just to sit down and read for the pure joy of it. Away is a book full of tender wisdom, brawling insight, sharp-edged humor and if it's possible a lovely, wayward precision. Amy Bloom has created an unforgettable cast of characters. Lillian, the heroine, or anti-heroine, somehow always manages to do what great journeys always do continue. A marvelous book." Colum McCann, author of Zoli
"Raunchy, funny, and touching, Away is an elegant window into the perils of self-invention and reinvention in New York in the 1920s. Amy Bloom's heroine, Lillian, is an unforgettable young woman on a quest to make her life whole and to belong in an unstable, yet fascinating, new American world." Caryl Phillips, author of A Distant Shore
"Amy Bloom's work has always revolved around what love and desire can make us do. In Away, she paints filial love on an immense geographic and historical canvas. The result, a story of loss and survival, is gripping." Christopher Tilghman, author of Roads of the Heart
"The vividness and tenderness with which Bloom tells this story is stunning. Bloom...has an innate understanding of the complexity of the human heart and in Lillian, she has created her most compelling character yet." Hartford Courant
"Amy Bloom's new book is an eventful novel. In its 236 pages are countless thefts, prostitutions, murders and suicides....Bloom's apparent research into the East Village, Jewish theater and life in New York is fascinating, worth a novel of its own." Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"Once in a great while, a work of art...will register in the chest cavity, producing an ache of recognition and pleasure. Away...is such a book....With so much of contemporary fiction driven on the rails of dialogue...Bloom instead builds a book out of what goes unsaid but is vividly understood." Cleveland Plain Dealer
About the Author
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.
Reading Group Guide
1. Dreams are a recurring theme in the novel. What are Lillians 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 reinvent 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 Yaakovs story with Lillians. How do they each handle the loss of spouse and children, and how are they changed?
6. During Lillians journey, there are key points at which she is required to identify herself as either a native or a foreigner, insider or outsider. Can you point out some of these moments? At the end of the novel, how complete is Lillians assimilation?
7. Relationships among 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?
8. How are sexuality and physical love portrayed in the novel? Consider Lillians relationship with the Bursteins, Chinkys relationship with Mrs. Mortimer, and Gumdrops relationship with Snooky Salt, as well as Lillians relationship with John Bishop and Chinkys relationship with Cleveland Munson.
9. 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)?
10. 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?
A Conversation with Amy Bloom
Random House Reader’s Circle: Away is loosely based on a real woman in history. Can you tell us a bit about her life, and how you came upon her story? Ultimately, how did you make her story your own?
Amy Bloom: I don’t know that I’d call Lillian Alling a “real woman in history.” There’ve always been bits and fragments of a story about a foreign woman, mute or silent by choice, who came up the Telegraph Trail, determined to walk to Russia. There are no records of her arriving in Ellis Island and no records of her life in Alaska and, of course, one of the first questions is: If she didn’t speak, how did they know where she was going? I ignored all the fanciful parts and also all the shoddy investigations into her story (this was the golden age of yellow journalism–when whole wars were made up to sell papers) and thought instead: If you weren’t crazy or particularly adventurous, why would you make this extraordinary trip? And I thought, I would only do it for love.
RHRC: Lillian Leyb’s journey takes her across the globe, from Russia to New York’s Lower East Side, to Seattle, to Alaska, to Siberia. Did you chart out her epic journey before writing? How did you conceive the arc of the novel?
AB: I sat down with a former student and a bottle of wine and dictated a forty-page outline to him. We wrapped it up at about four in the morning. The outline included a million unanswered questions, which led to all my research, and it also provided the entrances and exits of some of my favorite characters. This journey is as much about Lillian becoming alive again, and becoming an American, as it is about anything else.
RHRC: Away captures the mood of the Roaring Twenties, both in the rhythms of your language and in the atmosphere that you create. What sort of historical research did you undertake? What about the period captured your imagination to begin with?
AB: The Roaring Twenties only roared for some people. For lots of working people, it was a fast-paced world, but not one with hip flasks and flappers. The thing that truly captured my imagination was the way in which the twenties were so much like our modern world; they had everything we had (corruption, advertising, rapid transit, the cult of celebrity, expanded sense of sexuality) except television and computers. I researched in libraries from Alaska (which has extraordinary archives of first-person accounts) to Yale’s Sterling Library (which is just around the corner from a good cup of coffee) to making use, like everyone else, of all the search engines.
RHRC: This novel is filled with so many colorful characters, from the theater idol, Meyer Burstein, to the hardscrabble call girl, Gumdrop, to the loveable convict, Chinky Chang. Do you have a favorite character in the novel? Whose voice stands out to you most, and why?
AB: I love them all and they are all parts of me. My elegant sister, a hardworking and very upright lawyer says, “Gumdrop, c’est moi.” Gumdrop’s conflicts between love and practicality appeal to me, as does Chinky’s capacity to fall in love instantly. I also love Arthur Gilpin and his second wife, Lorena, a cardsharp who chooses love over glamour and money. The voice that is always with me is the omniscient narrator, the God’s Eye.
RHRC: The third-person omniscient narrator allows the novel to jump forward and backward in time and between parallel narratives. Tell us a little bit about your decision to use this technique. Why did you want the reader to know what happened to Sophie, even though Lillian herself never learns? Do you think Lillian ever stopped looking for Sophie?
AB:The omniscient narrator is God’s Eye on this world.The Eye can see into the past, into the future, and make connections that would not be available to the characters (Gumdrop doesn’t know that she is like Lenin). Lillian stops looking for Sophie, but never stops watching for her, never completely gives up the habit of holding her breath when she sees a brown braid tied with a blue ribbon, even fifty years after they have last seen each other. We see what happens to Sophie, as we do with all of the characters; what will be is part of the story.
RHRC: What significance do the chapter titles have? What are they derived from? And can you tell us why you decided to call the novel Away?
AB: Each of the chapter titles is a song title. The first half are Yiddish or Russian lullabies; the second half are American folk songs or Christian hymns. The book’s title is simple, to balance the complexity of the plot. It’s also one of those words that has in it both coming and going. I go away, I come away; I leave here, to go away and must go away again, in order to come home.
RHRC: As the author of a number of award-winning short story collections including Come to Me and A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, how did you approach writing a novel? Do you find it more challenging, or more freeing, to write in a longer narrative form?
AB: I approached writing this nove
l as I would a large, dangerous animal whom it might be possible to work with, if not to tame. I tried to apply the discipline of my short story writing (no longueurs, no self-indulgent riffs or pointless dialogue) to the novel, so that it would be dense, but not too long, full of characters but not baggy.
RHRC: We’d love to know what you’ll be working on next–can you share any details of your next book?
AB: It’s set in pre—World War Two America, in both the Boston Brahmin part of Beacon Hill and the make-it-up-as-we-go world of Hollywood at that time. At the center are two half-sisters, their mothers, and their father.