I had some time yesterday, as I had to go down to the RMV to register the new bike I got last week. As always, the visit to the Registry of Motor Vehicles gave me over an hour of reading time while I sat waiting for my number to be called. Luckily I had the foresight to bring a copy of Amy Bloom’s new novel Away with me. Janet Maslin raved about this book last week, calling it “gloriously transporting” and “alive with incident and unforgettable characters”—all within the first two sentences mind you—among other things.
This is the story of Lillian Leyb, a 22 year old Russian immigrant, who finds herself on the streets of New York after her parents, husband and daughter are killed in one of Russia’s pogroms in the mid 1920s. Lillian takes charge and though she barely speaks English, she forges to the head of the line of seamstresses applying for jobs at the Goldfadn Yiddish Theatre. She becomes mistress to head actor Meyer Burnstein and also to his father Reuben, owner of the theater. When a long lost cousin arrives, bearing news that her daughter Sophie is still alive in Russia, only her friend tailor/actor/playwright Yaakov Shimmelman helps her begin the journey.
This is not another sad tale of immigrant experience in America. Most of the novel follows Lillian on her return journey to Russia. It’s sort of a reverse pilgrimage. Along the way, she meets all sorts of interesting characters who help her on her journey. Bloom also lets you know what happens to each character after Lillian leaves them, which is a nice touch. I found the novel completely engrossing—I forgot I was sitting at the RMV after all. It’s a remarkable book, not only because the book’s pace moves quickly enough to be called a page turner but also because Bloom employs gorgeous language throughout.