Friday, December 26, 2008

Amy Bloom/AWAY

In 1924, a 22-year-old Ukranian Jewish woman named Lillian Leyb is the sole survivor when her family is massacred. Heartbroken at the loss of her two-year-old daughter and without any connections, Lillian travels to New York, where a distant cousin takes boarders and might be able to help Lillian make her way as a seamstress. Cold-blooded from her losses but ever the survivor, Lillian falls in with a successful Yiddish theater company on the Lower East Side, and thus begins her American life, which will take her from the cafes of Manhattan to the dirtiest bars in Alaska (and other places in between).

One of my friends recommended this book--it is her absolute favorite book ever. The New York Times and NPR seemed to have similar opinions, now that I've checked out their reviews. I liked it, but I found it's left me without a really deep impression. Bloom's historical research is very appreciated, and I was happy to read about a time in immigrant history that is relevant to so many Americans. In the end, I found Lillian a little unengaging, since her narrative meanders from character to character and since the author doesn't go out of her way to let us into Lillian's head. It is definitely an enjoyable, quick read, though, and I like that the book recognizes a fact about humanity: that in our lives, there is less continuity than we imagine there will be; there is rarely an arc that takes us from beginning to end with the people we imagine in the picture. Instead, most often, we cross paths with people we care about, and when our time together elapses we will more than likely never cross paths with them again.

On a slightly closer reading--Bloom makes one point that had not occurred to me before. If your parents die, you are an orphan. If your husband or wife dies, you are a widow(er). If your child dies--the worst of the three conditions--there is no special word for you. You are simply the parent of a dead child. Why don't we have a word, in English? Do other languages have a word?

7 comments:

Kristin Dodge said...

I see "bereaved" parents a lot (the language, not the people). Recently, a Somalian student said the English language was inadequate; she was trying to argue - via research paper - that there should be a word for people who are both pro-choice and pro-life. Needless to say, there was a lot of discussion about it.

I'll ask her if there is a word for it in her culture.

Ann Victor said...

Interesting point about orphans, widow(er)s and "bereaved parents".

But I think I'll pass on this book (even though the cover is lovely). Too many other books in my TBR pile!

moonrat said...

Thanks, Kristin. I'll be interested to hear if there is...

Ali said...

I read this in March and reviewed it on LibraryThing (I didn't have my book blog then). I thought it was just OK. Well-written, yes (except for the beginning, which I think reads like an example of how NOT to start a novel. But not compelling. Sometimes puzzling (like, why did she feel the need to summarize the entire rest-of-the-life of every character who crossed the page?)

I remember (well, ok, now that I reread my review I remember...) wondering if Amy Bloom was a parent, because I didn't think she had a grasp on the pain of being separated from a child. Or, at least, she didn't get it across to the reader. Lillian never struck me as particularly bereaved.

Mary said...

I absolutely loved this book. I think it's one that needs to be read and re-read to even begin to touch all the layers. I bought it in hard cover when it first came out because I love Amy Bloom's stories so much. I couldn't get past the first ten pages. There was nothing that engaged me, nothing I could connect to.

A year later, paperback, book group: forced myself to turn the pages until that scene where Yaakov unfurls the scroll of America and I was hooked. Sometimes connecting is difficult but it's always worth the work. I loved the journey and the people, the way we connect with people who we may or may not see again but who go on living inside us, and in our stories, forever. Or tattooed in some way on us. The structure of the story--every part of the craft--is incredible. Who is the narrator? Who tells our stories? What parts of the telling(s) are true? What is truth for that matter. And the mythological and biblical (John the Baptist!) references. But most of all: the words. Exquisite. The last paragraph is so beautiful, so full of hope and redemption right smack in the center of loss: Lillian in the green light of the woods, after falling into the Yukon River (baptism). The hand: from her child's hand to John's hand. Amazing. If you can go through everything Lillian's gone through and still love, well, what else is there to say about the collective soul?

moonrat said...

thanks, Mary. I like having a voice from the other side! it makes a review more balanced.

MargaretSouth said...

Writing was beautiful but story insufficient.