EDITOR’S NOTE: My girlfriend was intrigued when we found out it was Amy Bloom’s short story that appears on that Kindle at the beach in Amazon’s TV ad. But that was only the beginning…
We eventually purchased an ebook version of one of Amy’s full-length novels. (I asked my girlfriend if it felt strange to finally read an ebook that wasn’t free. But she said it was nice to read a contemporary author instead of one of the classics as a free ebook — especially an author with so much grace and style!)
“I’ve been downloading modern ebooks with interesting-sounding titles only to find they’re in the romance genre. You know, ‘I’m swearing off men, oh my he’s fine, oh he could never be interested in me the way I’m interested in him…’ Even hot sex doesn’t seem to change this opinion, until the obligatory sweeping away of all obstacles, leaving our heroine in the strong arms of the ripped body of her soul mate with the smouldering eyes. Honestly, I’m beginning to think it’s illegal to print a romance book unless it spends at least two-thirds of the book with the heroine conflicted about this perfect man who will obviously fulfill all her fantasies. These stilted plots have leaked over into the soft porn as well. But I digress…”
So with all the discussion about Amy Bloom’s story in the Kindle ad, we wanted to finally find out what her writing was like, and downloaded her novel Away, which nominated for both the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award. Book critics like this book!
But for my girlfriend, the real question remained: Did Amazon pick well for their Kindle ad? Is her work really vacation-beach worthy?
The answer is: I think so. There is nothing formulaic or predictable in Amy Bloom’s Away. I had absolutely no idea how the book was going to end, even up to its last 3 pages. Bloom draws you in, keeping your hopes alive through struggles that few today have experienced or understand. The main character, Lillian, flees Russia after her family is brutally murdered before her eyes by the village constables for the unforgivable crime of being Jewish.
She hands her daughter, Sophie, out the window to run to the safety of the chicken coop – but finds her gone when the constables are done and she steps over the bloody bodies of her family. This lives in her nightmares throughout the book. With everyone gone, she goes to a cousin in New York, living a drab existence, using her good looks to get a better job, all the while feeling dead inside. A relative pops up out of nowhere, telling her that Sophie is alive, rescued by their neighbors who then decamped for Siberia.
The trip to Siberia is less bizzare than it sounds at first. The Russians set up a “Zionist Paradise” there in hopes of sequestering Russian Jews in one spot. On this scant information, and armed with hope and her wits, Lillian sets off across US to go across the Bering Strait and then to Siberia to find Sophie. It is this trip that takes over two years and the rest of the book.
Amy Bloom writes beautiful descriptions. Lillian, newly arrived in New York, crowds into lines of other immigrant girls looking for seamstress work at a Jewish theater. “The street is like her village on market day, times a million. A boy playing a harp; a man with an accordion and a terrible, patchy little animal; a woman selling straw brooms from a basket strapped to her back, making a giant fan behind her head; a colored man singing in a pink suit and black shoes with pink spats… Lillian makes herself smile… as she walks past the women; they reek of bad luck.”
A couple of things really stand out for me when I consider this book.
There is a wealth of misery. Not only Lillian, but everyone she comes in contact with has their own tragic story, full of heartache and nightmares. Every. Single. One. I read on Wikipedia that Bloom is “trained as a social worker and practiced psychotherapy.” I wondered if these experiences influenced the way she drew the characters in Away. Not that she’s using specific stories, but that every single person she meets has a tragic past. Or perhaps I’m an optimist and think that at least some of the people I meet aren’t living with some horrific tragedy in their past. The unending onslaught of misery did wear me down by the end, even though some of the individual characters re-invented themselves and triumphed over their adversity.
The way Bloom treated Lillian’s nightmares, recurring throughout the book, seemed to me to come from her understanding therapy. It’s the same nightmare, over and over, always waking up screaming, until Lillian herself is no longer frightened by them, but thinks in her dreaming state, “yes, yes, the blood, the broken tea cup…” Familiarity breeds contempt, even with horror.
There are a few things I could quibble with, or pretend that if I were the editor I would change. For example, a full 10 pages of a 225-page novel is devoted to her train trip across the U.S. locked in a broom closet completely devoid of light. I kept expecting something to happen during this time, but no. Dark broom closet, stumble out into another train station and another train, another broom closet, Seattle. A lot of pages for not much. But these are minor.
For me the magical and wonderful moments in the book for me came from a thesaurus. I’ve never seen a thesaurus used as a character in a book before, and it was thoroughly enjoyable. A Jewish tailor in New York takes Lillian under his wing and tells her that in order to learn English, her best friend will be the thesaurus. Her adventures in New York are accompanied by asides of her learning the language through this tool. For example, Bloom writes, “You cannot admire Reuben for his integrity (forthrightness, honesty, purity, honorableness), and a good man would not enjoy knowing his gift was hidden in the apartment his son pays for, but Lillian thinks that Reuben is better than honest and better than good; he is strong.”
It’s a great read and highly recommended.
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Or read my interview with Amy Bloom about the day she discovered one of her short stories appeared in Amazon’s Kindle ad.