- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 16, 2007


By Amy Bloom

Random House, $23.95, 240 pages


Lillian Leyb is a delicious heroine — an innocent with the wisdom of the world and a powerful instinct for survival. She is young, pretty, quick-witted and willing to do whatever is necessary to get what she wants. She is without guilt or shame; she judges neither herself nor others.

instinct for survival. She is young, pretty, quick-witted and willing to do whatever is necessary to get what she wants. She is without guilt or shame; she judges neither herself nor others.

Lillian is the central character in Amy Bloom’s wonderful new novel, “Away,” a tender and witty tale of Don Quixote-like adventures in a world that’s sometimes familiar and sometimes completely zany. Unlike Quixote, however, Lillian sees clearly and tilts only to overcome.

“Lillian is lucky. Her father had told her so … He said that smart was good (and Lillian was smart, he said) and pretty was useful (and Lillian was pretty enough) but lucky was better than both of them put together… . He also said, You make your own luck.”

It is the summer of 1924. Lillian, the sole survivor of a vicious pogrom that has destroyed her family in their village in Russia, has just arrived in Brooklyn via Ellis Island. Her parents and husband were slaughtered; her little daughter, Sophie, has disappeared. And Lillian carries the scar, “a dull red line” where she was slashed from shoulder to hip forever.

With her instinct for being in the right place at the right time, she soon finds a job as a seamstress in the costume department at Goldfadn Theatre, owned by Reuben Burstein. When the handsome actor Meyer Burstein (Reuben’s son) asks her out for tea and cakes, she accepts.

Meyer “is Romeo to the Juliet of Ida Liptzin, whom Lillian could do without, batting her thick lashes like a spaniel and sweeping about the stage, brusque and bossy, as if she were Mrs. Montague getting ready for a dinner party instead of a young, lovesick girl… . ([T]he Bursteins have taken the best of Shakespeare, skipped over some dull pieces of business, given a lot more lines to the Nurse, a role clearly written for the Yiddish theatre, and made a few judicious cuts that have transformed Romeo from a boy in love — by its nature a joke to the Goldfadn audience — into a passionate, full-grown man torn between duty and love, which everyone understands).”

Meyer soon declares himself and sets Lillian up in an apartment, but it is his father, Reuben, who arrives to seduce Lillian. Meyer prefers unknown men in the park but needs a public image. Lillian is soon comfortable in her curious existence as mistress of the father and fiancee of the son.

When Lillian hears that her little Sophie may be alive in Siberia, she determines to return to Russia and find her daughter. She sets forth from Brooklyn, via Seattle and the Yukon, to find her child.

Lillian’s journey entails exchanging free railroad passage and a ham sandwich for certain intimate favors; a mugging in Seattle, the occasion for an interlude with a colorful black prostitute named Gumdrop, who is delighted to have a white woman to run errands for her and ends up changing her name, moving to Spokane and marrying “a fine Jewish man”; a stint in the Hazelton Agrarian Work Center for Women in Prince Rupert when the kindly constable incarcerates her to protect her from sure death in continuing her search with winter coming on; a friendship with Chinky Chang, a talented Chinese grifter she meets in Hazelton; a harrowing trek through the wilds of northern Canada; and, finally, an unforeseen happy ending.

The tale is told beautifully, with humor and a lovely sense of language — through Lillian’s acquisition of a new language and as well as asides that underlie the glorious versatility and richness of the English written word — at once bawdy and delicate, direct and poetic.

There is both lightness and depth to “Away.” It is a novel about love and friendship, about loss and hope. It’s entertaining and funny. There’s great satisfaction for the reader in having all the loose ends tied up and in knowing what happens to all the major characters after Lillian has passed out of their lives, sometimes as asides, sometimes as a quick flash-forward.

Miss Bloom’s book sparkles with brilliance. The reader is indeed carried away with the novel’s determined, enthusiastic and totally endearing heroine and the extraordinary characters she meets in her journey.

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer.

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