Immigrant Blues

By Review by Ron Charles
Sunday, August 19, 2007


By Amy Bloom

Random House. 235 pp. $23.95

Amy Bloom knows the urgency of love. As a practicing psychotherapist, she must have heard that urgency in her patients' stories, and in 1993 when she broke onto the literary scene with Co me To Me, we heard it in hers. She has never strayed from that theme. Four years later, she published Love Invents Us and followed that with another collection in 2000, A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You. A finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, Bloom writes with extraordinary care about people caught in emotional and physical crosswinds: desires they can't satisfy, illnesses they can't survive, and -- always -- love that exceeds the boundaries of this world.

It's the kind of humid, overwrought territory where you'd expect to find pathos and melodrama growing like mold, but none of that can survive the blazing light of her wisdom and humor.

Now, with her aptly named second novel, Away, Bloom has stepped confidently into America's past to work in that old and ever-expanding genre of immigrant lit. It seems, at first, a familiar tune, but she plays it with lots of brio and erotic charge. Lillian Leyb is a desperate young woman, fresh off the boat, trying to make her way in New York during the mid-1920s. Like thousands of other Jews, she has fled the pogroms in Russia with no money, few skills and little English; she rents half a mattress in a crowded flat and competes for sewing jobs with other desperate young women. As potential employers survey the crowd, she pushes to the front: "Whatever it is like, Lillian doesn't care. She will be the flower, the slave, the pretty thing or the despised and necessary thing, as long as she is the thing chosen from among the other things."

Throughout this breathless story, Bloom blends her voice with her heroine's to create a deeply sympathetic narrative that's analytical but always inflected with Lillian's fervor. "She's burning up to learn English," the narrator notes, and after she gets hold of a dictionary and a thesaurus, her thoughts are filled (packed, engorged, crammed, infused) with parenthetical lists of synonyms. No effort is too much. If the boss demands some intimacies in exchange for a place to live, she'll pay up. If his gay son needs her to pretend to be his mistress, well, she'll do that too.

The varied expressions of desire never shock Lillian, a quality of tolerance that she shares with Bloom. In 2002, the author published a nonfiction book called Normal that examined the lives of transsexuals, cross-dressers and people with ambiguous genitalia. Away demonstrates that same compassionate interest in the broad spectrum of humanity, particularly all those people excluded from what we like to pretend is "normal."

Not a drop of self-pity falls in these pages. Instead, Bloom and Lillian seem to sigh over these men and women with their fragile egos and the ordinary needs that they consider illicit. At 22, Lillian has already survived so much that the humiliations and deprivations of New York are merely minor inconveniences: "Lillian has endured the murder of her family, the loss of her daughter, Sophie, an ocean crossing like a death march, intimate life with strangers in her cousin Frieda's two rooms, smelling of men and urine and fried food and uncertainty and need."

That breezy summary of horrors practically acknowledges that these are well-worn elements of an all too common tragedy, but Bloom knows how to keep her story surging with fresh energy. Just as Lillian attains some precarious comfort, Bloom turns this story of coming to America on its head: Cousin Raisele, presumed dead with the rest of the family back in Russia, shows up at the door and announces that she saw Lillian's 3-year-old daughter alive before she left.

"Sophie's name, the sound of it in Raisele's mouth, her name said by someone who had seen her, seen her laughing and chasing the chickens, seen her in her flannel nightgown and thick socks, braids one up, one down, seen her running in the yard. . . . Sophie's name is a match to dry wood."

In fact, this whole novel reads like dry wood bursting into flame: desperate and impassioned, erotic and moving -- absolutely hypnotic. Once Lillian hears that Sophie may be alive, her only ambition is to leave America and find her daughter in Siberia. The old immigrant tale suddenly becomes a wild emigrant adventure.

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