Away: A Novel

By Amy Bloom
Binding:Paperback
Publisher:Random House Trade Paperbacks, (6/24/2008)
Language:English



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Panoramic in scope, Away is the epic and intimate story of young Lillian Leyb, a dangerous innocent, an accidental heroine. When her family is destroyed in a Russian pogrom, Lillian comes to America alone, determined to make her way in a new land. When word comes that her daughter, Sophie, might still be alive, Lillian embarks on an odyssey that takes her from the world of the Yiddish theater on New York’s Lower East Side, to Seattle’s Jazz District, and up to Alaska, along the fabled Telegraph Trail toward Siberia. All of the qualities readers love in Amy Bloom’s work–her humor and wit, her elegant and irreverent language, her unflinching understanding of passion and the human heart–come together in the embrace of this brilliant novel, which is at once heartbreaking, romantic, and completely unforgettable.
 
 

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"Away: A Novel"
By Amy Bloom

Average Rating:
Unleash it
3.50 out of 5 (2 Clubie's ratings)


The Gentleman
The Gentleman
By Forrest Leo

 
 
 General reading guide discussion questions to be used with ANY book your book club or reading group might be discussing.
 
 
1. Dreams are a recurring theme in the novel. What are Lillian’s dreams, both literal and metaphorical? How do these illustrate or inform the larger subject of the American dream? 

2. Much of the novel centers around self-invention and -reinvention. Can you identify some characters who reinvent themselves over the course of the novel? Which characters are successful? Which characters are unable to complete the process? 

3. According to folktales, “when you save the golden fish, the turbaned djinn, the talking cat, he is yours forever” (p. 43). Which characters in the novel are saved, in one way or another? Which characters do the saving? 

4. “Not that she is mine.That I am hers,”Lillian says,describing her love for Sophie (p. 79). In many ways, love is the primary engine of the plot. How does love define, inspire, and compel characters in the novel? What are some of the things characters do for love? Do you think that love is portrayed in the novel as a wholly positive force? 

5. Contrast Yaakov’s story with Lillian’s. How do they each handle the loss of spouse and children, and how are they changed? 

6. During Lillian’s journey, there are key points at which she is required to identify herself as either a native or a foreigner, insider or outsider. Can you point out some of these moments? At the end of the novel, how complete is Lillian’s assimilation? 

7. Relationships among family members, particularly parents and children, play an important role in the novel. Compare and contrast the relationships between Lillian and Sophie, Reuben and Meyer, Chinky and the Changs. What is distinct about each family? Are there similarities? 

8. How are sexuality and physical love portrayed in the novel? Consider Lillian’s relationship with the Bursteins, Chinky’s relationship with Mrs. Mortimer, and Gumdrop’s relationship with Snooky Salt, as well as Lillian’s relationship with John Bishop and Chinky’s relationship with Cleveland Munson. 

9. What kind of person is Lillian? What do we learn, throughout the novel, about her passions and prejudices? Do you think Lillian is right when she says that she is lucky (p. 4)? 

10. The metaphors and descriptive images in this novel are unique. Can you point out a few effective metaphors that helped the novel come alive for you as a reader?


Clubie Submitted Discussion Questions
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Life is no party for Lillian Leyb, the 22-year-old Jewish immigrant protagonist of Bloom's outstanding fifth novel: her husband and parents were killed in a Russian pogrom, and the same violent episode separated her from her three-year-old daughter, Sophie. Arriving in New York in 1924, Lillian dreams of Sophie, and after five weeks in America, barely speaking English, she outmaneuvers a line of applicants for a seamstress job at the Goldfadn Yiddish Theatre, where she becomes the mistress of both handsome lead actor Meyer Burstein and his very connected father, Reuben. Her only friend in New York, tailor/actor/playwright Yaakov Shimmelman, gives her a thesaurus and coaches her on American culture. In a last, loving, gesture, Yaakov secures Lillian passage out of New York to begin her quest to find Sophie. The journey—through Chicago by train, into Seattle's African-American underworld and across the Alaskan wilderness—elevates Bloom's novel from familiar immigrant chronicle to sweeping saga of endurance and rebirth. Encompassing prison, prostitution and poetry, Yiddish humor and Yukon settings, Bloom's tale offers linguistic twists, startling imagery, sharp wit and a compelling vision of the past. Bloom has created an extraordinary range of characters, settings and emotions. Absolutely stunning. (Aug.) 
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcoveredition. 

From The Washington Post
Review by Ron Charles

Amy Bloom knows the urgency of love. As a practicing psychotherapist, she must have heard that urgency in her patients' stories, and in 1993 when she broke onto the literary scene with Come To Me, we heard it in hers. She has never strayed from that theme. Four years later, she published Love Invents Us and followed that with another collection in 2000, A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You. A finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, Bloom writes with extraordinary care about people caught in emotional and physical crosswinds: desires they can't satisfy, illnesses they can't survive, and -- always -- love that exceeds the boundaries of this world. It's the kind of humid, overwrought territory where you'd expect to find pathos and melodrama growing like mold, but none of that can survive the blazing light of her wisdom and humor.

Now, with her aptly named second novel, Away, Bloom has stepped confidently into America's past to work in that old and ever-expanding genre of immigrant lit. It seems, at first, a familiar tune, but she plays it with lots of brio and erotic charge. Lillian Leyb is a desperate young woman, fresh off the boat, trying to make her way in New York during the mid-1920s. Like thousands of other Jews, she has fled the pogroms in Russia with no money, few skills and little English; she rents half a mattress in a crowded flat and competes for sewing jobs with other desperate young women. As potential employers survey the crowd, she pushes to the front:

"Whatever it is like, Lillian doesn't care. She will be the flower, the slave, the pretty thing or the despised and necessary thing, as long as she is the thing chosen from among the other things."

Throughout this breathless story, Bloom blends her voice with her heroine's to create a deeply sympathetic narrative that's analytical but always inflected with Lillian's fervor. "She's burning up to learn English," the narrator notes, and after she gets hold of a dictionary and a thesaurus, her thoughts are filled (packed, engorged, crammed, infused) with parenthetical lists of synonyms. No effort is too much. If the boss demands some intimacies in exchange for a place to live, she'll pay up. If his gay son needs her to pretend to be his mistress, well, she'll do that too.

The varied expressions of desire never shock Lillian, a quality of tolerance that she shares with Bloom. In 2002, the author published a nonfiction book called Normal that examined the lives of transsexuals, cross-dressers and people with ambiguous genitalia. Away demonstrates that same compassionate interest in the broad spectrum of humanity, particularly all those people excluded from what we like to pretend is "normal."

Not a drop of self-pity falls in these pages. Instead, Bloom and Lillian seem to sigh over these men and women with their fragile egos and the ordinary needs that they consider illicit. At 22, Lillian has already survived so much that the humiliations and deprivations of New York are merely minor inconveniences: "Lillian has endured the murder of her family, the loss of her daughter, Sophie, an ocean crossing like a death march, intimate life with strangers in her cousin Frieda's two rooms, smelling of men and urine and fried food and uncertainty and need."

That breezy summary of horrors practically acknowledges that these are well-worn elements of an all too common tragedy, but Bloom knows how to keep her story surging with fresh energy. Just as Lillian attains some precarious comfort, Bloom turns this story of coming to America on its head: Cousin Raisele, presumed dead with the rest of the family back in Russia, shows up at the door and announces that she saw Lillian's 3-year-old daughter alive before she left.

"Sophie's name, the sound of it in Raisele's mouth, her name said by someone who had seen her, seen her laughing and chasing the chickens, seen her in her flannel nightgown and thick socks, braids one up, one down, seen her running in the yard. . . . Sophie's name is a match to dry wood."

In fact, this whole novel reads like dry wood bursting into flame:

desperate and impassioned, erotic and moving -- absolutely hypnotic. Once Lillian hears that Sophie may be alive, her only ambition is to leave America and find her daughter in Siberia. The old immigrant tale suddenly becomes a wild emigrant adventure.

It's an impossible quest, of course, and everyone tells her she's "doomed, foolish, and peculiar." Her cousin is probably mistaken -- or lying (she wants Lillian's job and her sugar daddy). Her best friend, an old tailor who loves her deeply, can't understand why she would give up everything she has in America for such a hopeless cause as her lost daughter. "Because she belongs to you?" he asks. "Is that why?" "No," Lillian answers. "Not that she is mine. That I am hers."

Because travel over the Atlantic Ocean and the European continent is impossibly expensive, a friend concocts a crazy plan to send her across North America, over the Bering Strait and then directly into the Soviet Union. He's underestimated her itinerary by about 3,000 miles, but none of this matters. "The fact is that however far it is from one place to the other, and however difficult it will be, they both know she must go."

And so she goes and goes and goes, with maps of the Pacific Northwest sewn inside the lining of her overcoat. It's a grueling journey that begins with a 22-hour train ride to Chicago in a locked broom closet. But that turns out to be the easiest of the trials Bloom throws in Lillian's path. Along the way, she's beaten, robbed, jailed and enslaved -- a whole catalogue of exploitation, from one side of America to the other as she soldiers on by train, steamship, mule, canoe and foot. No matter how little she has, everybody wants something from her, and it's usually sex. Yet nothing angers Lillian or derails her. Bloom has boiled this woman down to a single, inexorable desire, and Lillian expects no better from anyone else:

"That people are ruled by their wants seems a reliable truth." She wastes no time fuming about that truth or wishing it were otherwise.

Indeed, nobody wastes any time in this novel, particularly the author. The whole saga hurtles along, a rush of horrible, remarkable ordeals: One minute Lillian is jumping into a deadly ménage à trois, the next she's beating a porcupine to death with her shoe and eating it. Not every woman could pull that off. Each chapter reads like a compressed novel, a form that works only because Bloom can establish new characters and grab our sympathies so quickly.

One of her most striking techniques is the way she periodically lets little tendrils of the story push ahead, shooting into the future to spin out the stories of characters Lillian encounters along the way. Lives bloom or wither in these asides, and then we're back with Lillian once more as she trudges on, inexorably, toward her daughter. And so what begins as a paean to the immigrant spirit in a city of millions is ultimately a gasp of wonder at the persistence of love, even in the remotest spot on earth. Hang on.

Copyright 2007, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition. 

From Bookmarks Magazine
Inspired by the legend of Lillian Alling, a Russian immigrant who decided to walk home to Siberia in the 1920s, Amy Bloom has taken the few details known to history and fleshed them out into a brilliant, enthralling novel. Critics universally lauded Bloom's lovely prose, wit, incisive characterizations, and keen grasp of the complexities of the human heart. Her careful balance of tragedy and humor, and irony and compassion, sidesteps sentimentality, and the novel retains a Dickensian flair without ever becoming maudlin. (Only USA Today faulted its epic-like narrative.) Critics also praised Bloom's narrative trick of revealing her characters' futures as they leave the plot. Hailed as a "literary triumph" by the New York Times, "it is also a classic page-turner, one that delivers a relentlessly good read."

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition. 

From Booklist
With the same mesmerizing grace she brings to her award-winning short stories, Bloom's new novel sweeps the reader along from page one. The story begins in Russia in the 1920s. Lillian Leyb survives the massacre of her family and runs away to New York City to live with a cousin. Ever practical, she allows herself to become the mistress of a star of the Jewish theater, and although she's not happy, life is not so bad. However, when she finds out that her daughter Sophie may still be alive in Siberia, she leaves everything she has and begins the arduous journey home. She rides trains hiding in broom closets and servicing conductors. She climbs on boats and walks the Yukon trail headed for the Bering Strait and probably death. But she has to try. Full of pathos, humor, and often heartbreaking beauty, this novel tells the story of immigrant life and the caring of others without being maudlin or didactic. All characters are brilliantly and compellingly drawn. Dickie, Elizabeth --This text refers to the Hardcover edition. 

Review
"...reads like dry wood bursting into flame: desperate and impassioned, erotic and moving—absolutely hypnotic. [W]hat begins as a paean to the immigrant spirit in a city of millions is ultimately a gasp of wonder at the persistence of love, even in the remotest spot on earth."
The Washington Post (The Washington Post )

"Away is a modest name for a book as gloriously transporting as Amy Bloom's new novel. Alive with incident and unforgettable characters, it sparkles and illuminates as brilliantly as it entertains."
—Janet Maslin, New York Times (The New York Times )

"Amy Bloom gets more meaning into individual sentences than most authors manage in whole books."—New Yorker (The New Yorker )

"Any new book by Amy Bloom is a cause for celebration."— The Times (London) (The Times (London) )

"The pleasures of Away are the ordinary pleasures of extraordinary novels: finely wrought prose, vivid characters, delectable details."
The Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles Times )

...reads like dry wood bursting into flame: desperate and impassioned, erotic and movingabsolutely hypnotic. [W]hat begins as a paean to the immigrant spirit in a city of millions is ultimately a gasp of wonder at the persistence of love, even in the remotest spot on earth. The Washington Post (The Washington Post )

Amy Bloom gets more meaning into individual sentences than most authors manage in whole books.New Yorker (The New Yorker )

Any new book by Amy Bloom is a cause for celebration. The Times (London) (The Times (London) )

Away is a modest name for a book as gloriously transporting as Amy Bloom's new novel. Alive with incident and unforgettable characters, it sparkles and illuminates as brilliantly as it entertains. Janet Maslin, New York Times (The New York Times )

Summary doesn't do justice to this compact epic's richness of episode and characterization, nor to the exemplary skill with which Bloom increases her story's resonance through dramatic foreshadowing of what lies ahead . . . .Echoes of Ragtime, Cold Mountain and Irving Howe's World of Our Fathers, in an amazingly dense, impressively original novel. Kirkus Reviews (starred) (Kirkus Reviews )

Summary doesn't do justice to this compact epic's richness of episode and characterization, nor to the exemplary skill with which Bloom increases her story's resonance through dramatic foreshadowing of what lies ahead . . . .Echoes of Ragtime, Cold Mountainand Irving Howe's World of Our Fathers, in an amazingly dense, impressively original novel. 
Kirkus Reviews (starred) (Kirkus Reviews )

The pleasures of Away are the ordinary pleasures of extraordinary novels: finely wrought prose, vivid characters, delectable details. The Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles Times ) --This text refers to the Audio CD edition. 

Review
Praise for Away
PRAISE FOR AWAY

“AWAY is a modest name for a book as gloriously transporting as Amy Bloom’s new novel. Alive with incident and unforgettable characters, it sparkles and illuminates as brilliantly as it entertains… AWAY is a literary triumph, a book-club must and a popular novel destined for wide readership. It is accessible to the point of pure enthrallment without compromising its eloquence or thematic strength. Yet it is also a classic page-turner, one that delivers a relentlessly good read.” 
NEW YORK TIMES

“Amy Bloom knows the urgency of love. As a practicing psychotherapist, she must have heard that urgency in her patients’ stories, and in 1993 when she broke onto the literary scene with Come To Me, we heard it in hers. She has never strayed from that theme…Bloom writes with extraordinary care about people caught in emotional and physical crosswinds: desires they can’t satisfy, illnesses they can’t survive, and–always–love that exceeds the boundaries of this world…this whole novel reads like dry wood bursting into flame: desperate and impassioned, erotic and moving–absolutely hypnotic.”
COVER OF WASHINGTON POST BOOK WORLD

“With her sly sense of humor and flair for precise, elegant language, acclaimed author Bloom fashions a spellbinding story of courage and unwavering optimism in the face of daunting odds.”
–PEOPLE

“Her execution is exquisite, and exquisite execution is rare–not only in books but (alas) in almost any undertaking…The pleasures of AWAY are the ordinary pleasures of extraordinary novels: finely wrought prose, vivid characters, delectable details. There’s a soft-smile, along-the-way humor…A practicing psychotherapist, this author combines eloquence with insight.”
COVER OF THE LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK WORLD

“By the end of this memorable, panoramic novel, Bloom transforms the musts in Lillian’s life into a Scheherazade-like procession of cans that encapsulate all the cultural richness that newcomers contributed to this nation of immigrants in the early part of the 20th century. Grade: A”
–ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY

“Far and away one of the best books of the year… Once in a great while, a work of art–a poem, a painting, a book–will register in the chest cavity, producing an ache of recognition and pleasure. AWAY by Amy Bloom is such a book… a surprising, tough and incandescent book.”
–CLEVELAND PLAIN DEALER

“Amy Bloom is blessed with a generous heart and a brilliant imagination, which is evident once again in her fifth and best book so far, AWAY…The vividness and tenderness with which Bloom tells this story is stunning. Bloom, who teaches writing at Yale University and is also a practicing psychotherapist, has an innate understanding of the complexity of the human heart and in Lillian, she has created her most compelling character yet.”
–HARTFORD COURANT

“So vivid and engaging, so delicious in tone, that a reader experiences an immediate thrill, the all-too-rare one that signals: I am in excellent hands here… The language that Bloom employs to tell Lillian’s story is immediate, colorful, and unafraid to be plain…It’s not easy to be lyrical, funny, and brilliant all at once, and Bloom is.”
–BOSTON GLOBE

“Rousing, utterly absorbing… a compact epic, an adventure story, a survival tale and an incredible journey wrapped up in a historical novel cloaked in a love story… exquisitely unsentimental novel about exile, hope and love in its various incarnations — maternal, romantic, sexual, platonic, inconvenient, unruly, unreasonable, abiding.”
–SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

“A powerful new novel of loss and love, of hope and struggle…amazing…AWAY is a short novel, but it feels packed to the rafters with fully-realized character, with America, with all the things that don’t fit inside the vessel we’ve taken to calling the American Dream…unforgettable.”
–LOUISVILLE COURIER JOURNAL

“Blom executes Lillian’s tale with the same fresh eye with which a master cinematographer captures a familiar landscape…In just 248 pages of astonishing prose, Bloom covers vast emotional (and geographic) terrain, giving a familiar story epic proportions.”
–NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

“Fascinating…a tough, engaging book.”
–PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE

“Outstanding…A sweeping saga of endurance and rebirth. Encompassing prison, prostitution and poetry, Yiddish humor and Yukon settings, Bloom’s tale offers linguistic twists, startling imagery, sharp wit and a compelling vision of the past. Bloom has created an extraordinary range of characters, settings and emotions. Absolutely stunning.”
PUBLISHERS WEEKLY, STARRED REVIEW 

“Summary doesn’t do justice to this compact epic’s richness of episode and characterization, nor to the exemplary skill with which Bloom increases her story’s resonance through dramatic foreshadowing of what lies ahead for her grifters and whores and romantic visionaries and stubborn, hard-bitten adventurers. Echoes of RagtimeCold Mountain and Irving Howe’s World of Our Fathers, in an amazingly dense, impressively original novel.”
 KIRKUS REVIEWS, STARRED REVIEW 

“A masterly second novel…the writing is spare and tender, with revelatory doses of irony….A novel this gorgeous doesn’t need humor, but what’s better than laughing off a good cry? AWAY is a story to sink your heart into.”
–Elle Magazine

“Bloom attempts a sweeping historical epic and succeeds…Haunting.”
–More Magazine

“A novel laced with heartache, but also a strong thread of hope.”
–O Magazine

“This beautiful, effulgent book sped me forward word by word, out of the room I was in and into Amy Bloom’s world. This is a wonderful novel, a cosmos that transcends its time period and grabs us without compromise. Lillian’s astonishing journey, driven by a mother’s love, will be with me for a long, long time.”
–Ron Carlson, author of The Speed of Light

“I haven’t read a novel in a long time that I genuinely wanted to get back to, just to sit down and read for the pure joy of it. Away is a book full of tender wisdom, brawling insight, sharp-edged humor and–if it’s possible–a lovely, wayward precision. Amy Bloom has created an unforgettable cast of characters. Lillian, the heroine, or anti-heroine, somehow always manages to do what great journeys always do–continue. A marvelous book.”
–Colum McCann, author of Zoli

“Raunchy, funny, and touching, Away is an elegant window into the perils of self-invention and reinvention in New York in the 1920s. Amy Bloom’s heroine, Lillian, is an unforgettable young woman on a quest to make her life whole and to belong in an unstable, yet fascinating, new American world.”
–Caryl Phillips, author of A Distant Shore

“Amy Bloom’s work has always revolved around what love and desire can make us do. In Away, she paints filial love on an immense geographic and historical canvas. The result, a story of loss and survival, is gripping.”
–Christopher Tilghman, author of Roads of the Heart


From the Hardcover edition. 

Review
An urgent, riveting, fabulously entertaining road trip of a novel, Away grabs you by the throat from the first page to the last, breaks your heart and shakes all your senses awake. 

—Emma Donoghue, author of Touchy Subjects --This text refers to the Audio CD edition. 

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Amy Bloom is the author of Come to Me, a National Book Award finalist; A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award; Love Invents Us; and Normal. Her stories have appeared in Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Short Stories, The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction, and many other anthologies here and abroad. She has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Vogue, Slate, and Salon, among other publications, and has won a National Magazine Award. Bloom teaches creative writing at Yale University.


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