Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Away, by Amy Bloom

An extraordinary book. Small and simply written, this tale of Lilian Leyb is also poetic, beautiful, and full of characters we can believe in even as we laugh at their unexpected actions. Most of all, the character of Lillian is solid, strong, far from perfect yet yes, perfect.

Lillian finds herself in Manhattan with nothing but an address pinned to her coat. She speaks no English but does speak Russian and Yiddish and lands in New York in 1924, during the period when to be a seamstress means you can live. She has already been through hell in Russia, losing her family to horrific violence. Perhaps the lessons of that time are part of what keeps her going, adjusting to turns of events and accepting what she must accept, yet single-mindedly doing what she herself knows she must do.

Eventually Lillian sets out to return to Russia to find her little daughter, and her route takes her across the country and up through Canada and beyond. On this "road trip" unlike any other road trip she meets many people, as important as those she left behind in Russia and New York. Each time Lillian sets off again we learn the future, sketched lovingly, of each of these friends, a bonus that usually made me smile.

The details of Lillian's life in New York, her trip across country, her walk into the Yukon, are alive with a sense of reality. We can walk in her shoes even though for us it doesn't hurt.

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