Critics are redundant in their use of “panoramic” and “epic” to praise Amy Bloom’s most recent novel, Away. It might be sloppy reviewing that has generated these cloned reviews, but I can appreciate the temptation. With a whole continent as setting and a mother’s endure-anything pursuit of her missing child as plot, this story has all the elements to be, well, panoramic and epic — and yet I found it unsatisfying. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Lillian Leyb has fled Russia after witnessing the murder of her husband and parents. At the invitation of a cousin, she arrives in New York in 1924 to start a new life. She survives first as a seamstress and then, unexpectedly, as the mistress of a rich theater boss. But when someone else arrives from the old country with the news that she has seen Lillian’s daughter — the toddler she had searched for desperately after the massacre until convinced that she, too, had been killed — and that the girl has been adopted by a family bound for Siberia, Lillian sets out in pursuit. With few resources at her disposal, she heads west to Seattle and then north through the Alaskan wilderness with the intention of crossing the Bering Strait and being reunited with her only child.
Clearly, this is a novel with huge aspirations, geographically and morally. And Bloom is a brilliant writer who paints the landscapes of North America and the landscapes of the heart with brushes both gritty and delicate. Some truly gorgeous passages exist here, as well as sympathetic, fully-developed characters. But I developed a few points of contention as I read.
First, I believe that a mother might do anything to save her child, but I find it less plausible to believe that she would have to do everything, and do it many times over, in order to succeed. There is a lot of sex — of every kind and variety — in this book. Lest you think that Lillian is just an immoral woman, Bloom is clear that her protagonist is a victim of circumstances who wants only to reach her child. And, yes, people are often quick to exploit others for their own gain, but unfortunately for Lillian, the percentage of people quick to exploit her only commodity seems unusually high — which makes the rare moments when Lillian initiates these activities seem less plausible as well.
My second point of contention has to do with the ending. To avoid spoiling the plot, I will say only that the choice Lillian makes at the end does not seem consistent with the choices she made throughout her journey. I am not a big fan of novels in which all the loose ends are tied up neatly, but this conclusion, though it offered an element of redemption, was unsatisfying.
A few more positives are in order, though. In scanning other reviews, I see that a number of readers disliked a device in which Bloom reveals the futures of passing characters as they take their leave of the story. But I think this only adds to the “panoramic” feeling in the way the narrative departs the constraints of time, expanding the reader’s knowledge to a God’s eye-view of past, present, and future. I also admire Bloom’s imaginative prowess in crafting such a vast “epic” around the barest historical reference to a woman who once walked to Russia. So though I don’t agree in all respects with the effusive critics, the scope of what she has tried to accomplish and the remarkable skill she employs may be enough for me to give another of her books a try — perhaps the story collection Come to Me, which was a National Book Award finalist.