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Dramatic,
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Poorly Written

2 reviews

Away: A Novel
by Amy Bloom

Published: 2007-08-21
Hardcover : 240 pages
20 members reading this now
27 clubs reading this now
3 members have read this book
Recommended to book clubs by 2 of 2 members
“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, ...
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Introduction

“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 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.

Editorial Review

No editorial review at this time.

Excerpt

Chapter 1

And Lost There, a Golden Feather in a Foreign, Foreign Land

It is always like this: the best parties are made by people in trouble.

There are one hundred and fifty girls lining the sidewalk outside the Goldfadn Theatre. They spill into the street and down to the corners and Lillian Leyb, who has spent her first thirty-five days in this country ripping stitches out of navy silk flowers until her hands were dyed blue, thinks that it is like an all-girl Ellis Island: American-looking girls chewing gum, kicking their high heels against the broken pavement, and girls so green they’re still wearing fringed brown shawls over their braided hair. The street is like her village on market day, times a million. A boy playing a harp; a man with an accordion and a terrible, patchy little animal; a woman selling straw brooms from a basket strapped to her back, making a giant fan behind her head; a colored man singing in a pink suit and black shoes with pink spats; and tired women who look like women Lillian would have known at home in Turov, smiling at the song, or the singer. Some of the girls hold red sparklers in their hands and swing one another around the waist. A big girl with black braids plays the tambourine. A few American-looking girls make a bonfire on the corner, poking potatoes in and out of it. Two older women, pale and dark-eyed, are pulling along their pale, dark-eyed children. That’s a mistake, Lillian thinks. They should ask a neighbor to watch the children. Or just leave the children in Gallagher’s Bar and Grille at this point and hope for the best, but that’s the kind of thing you say when you have no child. Lillian makes herself smile at the children as she walks past the women; they reek of bad luck. ... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

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 invent 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. Mythology–both the mythology of individuals and of cultures–is an important motivator in the novel. Which stories or beliefs drive different characters? How do established myths inform the journeys taken and the challenges faced by Lillian as she crosses the American continent?

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

8. Relationships between 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?

9. 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.

10. 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)?

11. The omniscient third-person narrator of the novel is able to jump forward and backward in time and between parallel narratives. What is the purpose of this technique? Why does the author want us to know what happened to Sophie, even though Lillian herself never learns? Do you think Lillian ever stopped looking for Sophie?

12. 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?

13. What significance do the chapter titles have? What are they derived from, and what do they tell the reader about what happens in the novel? Why did Bloom title her novel Away?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

Away is loosely based on a real woman in history. Can you tell us a bit about her life, and how you came upon her story? Ultimately, how did you make her story your own?

Amy Bloom: I don’t know that I’d call Lillian Alling a “real woman in history.” There’ve always been bits and fragments of a story about a foreign woman, mute or silent by choice, who came up the Telegraph Trail, determined to walk to Russia. There are no records of her arriving in Ellis Island and no records of her life in Alaska and, of course, one of the first questions is: If she didn’t speak, how did they know where she was going? I ignored all the fanciful parts and also all the shoddy investigations into her story (this was the golden age of yellow journalism–when whole wars were made up to sell papers) and thought instead: If you weren’t crazy or particularly adventurous, why would you make this extraordinary trip? And I thought, I would only do it for love.

RHRC: Lillian Leyb’s journey takes her across the globe, from Russia to New York’s Lower East Side, to Seattle, to Alaska, to Siberia. Did you chart out her epic journey before writing? How did you conceive the arc of the novel?

AB: I sat down with a former student and a bottle of wine and dictated a forty-page outline to him. We wrapped it up at about four in the morning. The outline included a million unanswered questions, which led to all my research, and it also provided the entrances and exits of some of my favorite characters. This journey is as much about Lillian becoming alive again, and becoming an American, as it is about anything else.

RHRC: Away captures the mood of the Roaring Twenties, both in the rhythms of your language and in the atmosphere that you create. What sort of historical research did you undertake? What about the period captured your imagination to begin with?

AB: The Roaring Twenties only roared for some people. For lots of working people, it was a fast-paced world, but not one with hip flasks and flappers. The thing that truly captured my imagination was the way in which the twenties were so much like our modern world; they had everything we had (corruption, advertising, rapid transit, the cult of celebrity, expanded sense of sexuality) except television and computers. I researched in libraries from Alaska (which has extraordinary archives of first-person accounts) to Yale’s Sterling Library (which is just around the corner from a good cup of coffee) to making use, like everyone else, of all the search engines.

RHRC: This novel is filled with so many colorful characters, from the theater idol, Meyer Burstein, to the hardscrabble call girl, Gumdrop, to the loveable convict, Chinky Chang. Do you have a favorite character in the novel? Whose voice stands out to you most, and why?

AB: I love them all and they are all parts of me. My elegant sister, a hardworking and very upright lawyer says, “Gumdrop, c’est moi.” Gumdrop’s conflicts between love and practicality appeal to me, as does Chinky’s capacity to fall in love instantly. I also love Arthur Gilpin and his second wife, Lorena, a cardsharp who chooses love over glamour and money. The voice that is always with me is the omniscient narrator, the God’s Eye.

RHRC: The third-person omniscient narrator allows the novel to jump forward and backward in time and between parallel narratives. Tell us a little bit about your decision to use this technique. Why did you want the reader to know what happened to Sophie, even though Lillian herself never learns? Do you think Lillian ever stopped looking for Sophie?

AB:The omniscient narrator is God’s Eye on this world.The Eye can see into the past, into the future, and make connections that would not be available to the characters (Gumdrop doesn’t know that she is like Lenin). Lillian stops looking for Sophie, but never stops watching for her, never completely gives up the habit of holding her breath when she sees a brown braid tied with a blue ribbon, even fifty years after they have last seen each other. We see what happens to Sophie, as we do with all of the characters; what will be is part of the story.

RHRC: What significance do the chapter titles have? What are they derived from? And can you tell us why you decided to call the novel Away?

AB: Each of the chapter titles is a song title. The first half are Yiddish or Russian lullabies; the second half are American folk songs or Christian hymns. The book’s title is simple, to balance the complexity of the plot. It’s also one of those words that has in it both coming and going. I go away, I come away; I leave here, to go away and must go away again, in order to come home.

RHRC: As the author of a number of award-winning short story collections including Come to Me and A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, how did you approach writing a novel? Do you find it more challenging, or more freeing, to write in a longer narrative form?

AB: I approached writing this nove

l as I would a large, dangerous animal whom it might be possible to work with, if not to tame. I tried to apply the discipline of my short story writing (no longueurs, no self-indulgent riffs or pointless dialogue) to the novel, so that it would be dense, but not too long, full of characters but not baggy.

RHRC: We’d love to know what you’ll be working on next–can you share any details of your next book?

AB: It’s set in pre—World War Two America, in both the Boston Brahmin part of Beacon Hill and the make-it-up-as-we-go world of Hollywood at that time. At the center are two half-sisters, their mothers, and their father.

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
 
 
  "Persevere!!"by kimhalti (see profile) 12/09/09

A long dark tale of perseverence in the face of immense suffering. Nicely written, but some of our members found the despair/depravity overwhelming and never finished the book. The ending was satisfying... (read more)

 
  "Away by Amy Bloom"by marlagorman (see profile) 12/09/09

 
  "Russian Porn"by Natty6782 (see profile) 07/12/09

Our book club jokingly referred to this book as the Russian Porn. This book was filled with gratuitous sexual encounters that felt as if they were written by a 14 year old boy to be read by other 14 year... (read more)

 
  "Following the life of a Russian immigrant from NYC to Alaska"by KLOPES (see profile) 04/24/09

I didn't sympathize with the main character and didn't understand the purpose of her "travels". The writing seemed disconnected and sometimes ambiguous. I think the author was better suited for separate... (read more)

 
  "lily leyb tries to find her daughter, which leads her up to alaska"by adelumeau (see profile) 04/08/09

a great story and page turner!
ensured an animated and lively discussion!
highly recommended for a book club!

 
  "read it, but don't remember 1 word of it..."by aliciafaierman (see profile) 10/11/08

as i said above, i read the whole bk, but not 1 word stayed w/me, which means it couldn't have been very good. not 1 of my favorites.

 
  "An epic tale of survival"by dchase21 (see profile) 10/02/08

Bloom does an excellent job of creating a storyline loosely based upon a character from history. This tale is Dickensian in its nature with a little bit of John Irving thrown in. I loved this book and... (read more)

 
  "a story of survival"by rosalie (see profile) 09/30/08

The writer has painted pictures of the journey and the people she meets along the way. Enjoy the charactors and how Ms. Bloom rapped up each of the stories along Lillian journey.

 
  "The chronicals of a womans journey across america to find something lost"by jkhawley (see profile) 08/08/08

I found this writing style hard to read and without emotion.

 
  "authors crude insights really turned me off"by niferwolfe (see profile) 07/25/08

The authors crude writing style really turned me off to what was a highly anticipated read.

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