Amy Bloom’s latest novel Away is so linear that the story is stretched far too thinly. The book covers Lillian Leyb’s arrival in the United States after escaping the pogroms in Russia where, she believes until her cousin tells her otherwise, her daughter has perished. In New York, Lillian works in the Yiddish Theater and then through the grace of her lover is given train fare to journey back to Russia to find her daughter. Taking a ship back would be too dangerous and so Lillian travels west with the intention of going through Alaska, then Siberia and finally to Russia. Lillian stops in Seattle where Bloom describes the life of a whore and then to Alaska where Lillian begins her journey on foot through the bush.
Any one of these stories would be enough for a fascinating novel, but Bloom, like Lillian, has a one-track mind and forces the story and the reader along just as we are excited to sit and explore the current surroundings. This driving force behind Lillian is brought to screeching halt in Alaska, where Lillian decides that finding her daughter is less important than staying put with a man whose cabin she stumbles upon in her journey. This novel is getting some good reviews, and I can’t help but wonder if the reviewers have read her previous work in which her attention to detail, her patience to linger over a touch, a glance, a kiss lets the reader soar.
Bloom’s themes in her previous works often revolve around the repercussions of breaking with our traditional ideas of monogamy. Her short story collections, Come to Me and A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, both explore love outside the bounds of marriage. Bloom never punished her characters for their actions, but lets the longing, the pent-up passion, and unrequited love be sweet punishment enough. Her descriptions of sex and passion are filled with quiet actions that fill the reader with desire for these encounters. From the short story, "The Sight of You," a woman’s lover says, “'I can’t not come to you,' he said. 'I just don’t have any choice about it.’ And he gathered up my hair into little bunches and pressed them against his wet face, like flowers.” The woman’s husband is boring and inattentive, though good with their daughters but what woman could resist a man who holds her hair so tenderly?
In A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, the short story, "The Gates Are Closing," begins, “Help me. I slid my hands up the legs of Jack’s shorts to stroke the top of his thigh, and he lost his grip on the paint roller. A hundred tiny drops flew through the air at me.” In the following paragraph we learn that this man on the ladder is suffering from Parkinson’s and that he is the husband of the president of the synagogue they are painting. The story explores the different requirements lovers must follow. They are expected to be more passionate, more willing and yet more dead-eyed and cold when requested. The woman in this story struggles with this role and her lover tells her that this is the deal when you share stolen moments with someone’s else’s husband, you must be everything the wife is not. The man tells her, “I told you when we met, baby, I already have a wife.” Though I don’t believe Bloom is making a case, or commenting on our social mores, her stories often make a good case for extraneous relationships, and her characters are filled, for a moment, for a lifetime, after giving in to their passions.
Bloom’s female characters are often seen for the first time in a long time by the men who fill their beds. These mothers, and wives who have long since lost their polish for their husbands, are cracked open by new men, their bodies after children, years after the wedding dress would never fit again, are explored anew. These women see beauty again and after these encounters, who would ask them to give that up in favor of one dull life where they are simply mother and wife, or maid or taxi?
As Bloom writes in the story "Faultlines," after the woman has decided she will not take this man as her lover, but as she stumbles and falls into his arms, “A prefect kiss, like a perfect beach, or a perfect diamond, is not so common in our lives that it can be ignored. As Marie calls them for dessert, they loosen their arms but discover they cannot part, they are as inseparable as color and light.” Life is very long and why should we deny ourselves perfect moments because the world says we ought to suffer through the ugliness of daily life, glimpsing beauty, but never holding it because a god or karma or some other abstract thing might punish us for spending an afternoon exploring pure pleasure. In Bloom’s collections this punishment never materializes, and in its place is solace and sex and beauty.Powered by Sidelines