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By Amy Bloom
256 pages; $23.95
In Amy Bloom's new novel the heroine, Lillian Leyb, is crumpled and recreated more times than a marionette at the fair. Lillian is a Jewish immigrant from Russia who has fled her home after her husband, parents and neighbors were murdered in a pogrom. She has been separated from her two-year-old daughter, Sophie, and she is attempting to start a new life for herself on the Lower East Side.
Girls like her are a dime a dozen in the 1920s immigrant New York Jewish community where the novel's opening is set, but Lillian is exceptional in a few small, but important, ways. She isn't the most gorgeous girl on the street, nor the most talented, but she has her own "pussycat" charm, she knows what she wants and she has almost no scruples about getting it.
And so Bloom's heroine goes from being a penniless wench to being the lover of Reuben, a Yiddish theater owner, and the mistress of Reuben's glamorous, gay, thespian son, Meyer.
The situation may sound preposterous, but Bloom, a practicing psychotherapist, makes it entirely plausible. What is more, she succeeds in making Lillian into a character who is at once fascinating for her cool, calculating nature and endearing for her deeply human warmth. As she lies with one man and then the other, she scorns neither and makes room in her heart to love both and others, too.
Out of this set-up Bloom could easily have unraveled an entire novel. Lillian is far from static in New York. As her relationships with both men develop, her own motivations and aspirations subtly shift.
She is adamant about learning English, and her attempts at swallowing her thesaurus produce mildly comical prose. "You cannot admire Reuben for his integrity (forthrightness, honesty, purity, honorableness)."
But this is just the first act of Bloom's Away. Just as the heroine is settling down to her unusual domesticity, Lillian's cousin, Raisele, who wouldn't mind a little of what Lillian has, arrives from Russia with the announcement that Lillian's daughter is alive and has been taken by friends to Siberia.
Lillian has no real means to get herself to Siberia, and no means whatsoever of finding her girl, but although she distrusts Raisele entirely - she is a woman who "would steal the pennies off a dead man's eyes" - she is compelled to leave.
The next two thirds of Away follow Lillian as she winds her way penniless through America's backwaters: African-American Seattle, the cleaning cupboards of America's westward-bound trains with their assorted filth, the depth of the Yukon woods. Every situation brings with it new characters, each more improbable than the last and yet entirely believable.
There's Gumdrop, a former whore who murders her pimp and goes on to become a Hadassah lady-who-lunches; Arthur Gilpin, a constable who locks Lillian up in a women's prison on nothing more than a whim - "cool and regretful, as if they'd never shared a meal or held each other" - and a policeman who accidentally murders a man and disappears. They all fascinate the reader.
BLOOM IS the author of one previous novel and two short story collections (Come to Me, A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You), each of which grapples with the infinite complexities of lust and intimacy. In Away, she succeeds in creating characters whom we love despite their flaws, their lasciviousness and their downright immorality. While the book sometimes lacks the emotional punch of Bloom's short story collections - particularly Come to Me, which is one of the most moving books about contemporary love to be found on our shelves - Away is still a real page-turner. Its structure is almost flawless, and this is a marked improvement on Love Invents Us, her first novel, which seems more like an embroidered short story than a novel.
What's more, Bloom's ending does not disappoint. She stops short of any sentimental cliche, and while the final pages demonstrate the fierce power of human optimism, they do so with a brittle bite of realism.
Critics have already compared Away to E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime and, in its Job-like testing of its heroine, to Voltaire's Candide. While it may or may not become a timeless classic, it will certainly become a book club favorite, and one that club members actually read - and enjoy.
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