Lillian Leyb, the heroine of Amy Bloom’s latest novel, gives the appearance of a young woman who’s practical to the point of a sort of animal amorality. The survivor of a massacre that took the lives of her parents, husband and, she believes, her little daughter Sophie, she sets sail in 1924 for America, where she’s taken in by a cousin, gets a job as a mediocre seamstress and quickly becomes the mistress of not one but two theater bigwigs who happen to be father and son. Lillian is prepared to let this comfortable state of affairs continue until another cousin tells her that Sophie just might have survived the pogrom and is now living with a family in Siberia. Here the novel, which could have been subtitled “Sophie’s Mother’s Choice,” stops being the somewhat offbeat story of an immigrant looking for a better life in America and becomes an almost Homeric quest.
What makes Away especially appealing is that Lillian, who can’t afford a transatlantic trip, decides to go west, across the continental United States, up to Alaska and over the Bering Strait and into Russia to find her daughter. The grueling journey, which takes years, leads Lillian, like Ulysses, to meet all manner of folk, most of whom help her in one way or another.
The heroine handles all the twists and turns of her travels with her usual practicality; placid, unbreakable optimism; and steely will. Bloom’s writing is clear, rich and shot through with moments of humor, as when a prostitute Lillian befriends bursts into song after the gruesome murder of her pimp. After an inmate in the women’s prison Lillian is sent to is beaten unconscious, all the matron can say is, “Ladies, tidy up.” Lillian herself is not quite the naif most people take her for and, like a force of nature, her impact on the people she meets even briefly can be profound. Some prosper, as we see in brief flash forwards; others don’t. But most find Lillian unforgettable, and so will the readers of this absorbing book.
Arlene McKanic is a writer in Jamaica, New York.