Away by Amy Bloom, a novel which summons up the ancestors of your faithful blogger and the music of one of her favorite composers

December 16, 2007 at 9:23 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Family, Music) ()

away.jpg amybloomcreditbethkelly.jpg Away is the story of Lillian Leyb, a Jewish woman who has recently fled Russia after the massacre of her entire family. Or nearly her entire family…

Lillian’s first port of call is Manhattan, where, by dint of her artless but irresistible charm, she gains entree into a circle of people involved in the Yiddish theater. Amy Bloom’s vibrant re-creation of this lost world was for me, hands down, the best part of the book. And I have to say here that there is a good deal of subjectivity in this response. Suddenly I was seeing Yiddish words and phrases – keine hora, zay gezunt, mamzer – that I had rarely encountered in my adult life but remember as the background noise of my childhood. (So, hello, Grandma Mary! Yes, my mother’s mother was named Mary; go figure.) Bloom reproduces not only the language but also the speech patterns of these passionate, boisterous, sometimes despairing immigrants with uncanny accuracy.

This portrait of Jewish New York in the 1920’s is filled with affection and humor. One of my favorite characters is Yaakov Shimmelman. Here’s what it says on his business card:

“Yaakov Shimmelman

Tailor, actor, playwright,

Author of The Eyes of Love.

Pants pressed and altered.”

Poor Shimmelman, a hopeless romantic who gets just a little – precious little – in return for his devotion to Lillian!

About half way through the book, Lillian is told by a new arrival from the old country that an especially cherished member of her family might still be alive and currently living in Siberia. The source of this intelligence, her cousin Raisele, is an opportunist of dubious veracity; nevertheless, Lillian knows at once that must get to Siberia somehow and find out the truth for herself. Thus begins a cross country odyssey filled with adversity and incident. Some of the incidents were, for this reader, simply too outrageous (not to mention sordid) to be believed. That was part of my problem with the book’s second half. The other problem was that I wanted to be back in New York, among the immigrants, who might, in my imagination, cross paths with my own grandparents.

gradma.jpg mother.jpg gradma-mother-roberta.jpg

[Left to right: my maternal grandmother Mary in 1935; my mother, probably around 1934; my grandmother, my mother and myself, some time in the mid-1950’s. My mother’s name was Lillian.]

Well, as I said, that was my problem. I stayed with this novel because of the compelling nature of Lillian’s quest, and because of Lillian herself. Although her adventures at time strain credulity, I found myself nonetheless rooting for her and admiring her. This, I thought, is the gritty stuff that immigrants must be made of if they hope to survive in their brave new world. I was deeply moved by the novel’s concluding scenes; in them, the author won me back.

[ gustav_mahler.jpg Soundtrack: the third and fourth movements of Symphony No.1 by Gustav Mahler. The dirge-like sonorities of “Frere Jacques” transposed to a minor key, the jaunty, swooping clarinet – why, it’s klezmer music, smack in the middle of this gigantic orchestral opus! If you can, get the classic recording with the Columbia Symphony led by the legendary Bruno Walter. mahler-sym-no-1-bruno-walter.jpg Walter, in his youth, knew Mahler. Listen to the entire work, and be grateful that this complex, charismatic man lived among us and gave us this masterpiece.]

( Follow this link and click on the picture of Amy Bloom and “Barnes & Noble Media” to hear an interview with the author about Away. But be warned: IMHO, the interviewer relates rather too much of the novel’s plot in her introductory remarks.)

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