Massacre, loss, emigration, new language, poverty, hope against hope, despair... then love, even contentment. Stories such as Away make one wonder about people in the first half of the 20th century: how they ever managed to get through at all, let alone with some degree of composure.
Many did not, and Amy Bloom's central character in this novel, Lillian Leyb, would more likely have perished, at least in spirit if not body, somewhere along the very long way she travels. But individuals do survive, and the "heartless opportunism" that Bloom ascribes to another character has its place. Lillian is not heartless, but she can make the most of any scrap of good luck.
The opportunities that are there for Lillian when she arrives in New York in 1924 centre around her being an attractive young woman. "Bold is good," says Reuben Burstein, a Jewish theatre impresario, as Lillian pushes herself forward to catch his eye. Back home in Belarus, she was a daughter, wife and mother, but with all these roles taken from her, she slips into being an adventuress with apparent ease.
Some details seem anachronistic: would a Jewish woman from a rural background really drink wine on her own in 1924? Lillian does, as she waits for her lover (or lovers, since Burstein father and son are both part of her good luck). Other details are more convincing, such as her discomfort in the clothes the young Burstein wants her to wear.
Any notion the Bursteins may have had of Lillian being theirs lasts only until she receives news of her lost infant daughter, Sophie. The possibility that Sophie is alive in Siberia sets Lillian off on the gallant quest that occupies the second half of the book. Her plan is to cross America, go up to Alaska, then cross the Bering Strait into Siberia. At this point, the novel becomes more like a linked series of short stories, with Lillian a visitor to the lives of the many others who help or hinder her on her journey.
Unlike those critics whose "advance praise" says that Lillian is unforgettable, Bloom herself seems rather to forget her heroine, delighting instead in dreaming up new characters. She is very good at it, witty, brief, empathetic, but when one of these extras gets a chapter almost to herself, the reader gets restive. Does Lillian find Sophie? Read the book.
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