Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Away by Amy Bloom

I was only so-so on this novel by the very talented Amy Bloom (lots of critics liked it though), but I was interested in how she used a journey structure but managed to avoid an overly episodic feel. Most journey novels have something clearly at stake for the beginning and the end--the thing that is the reason for going on the journey (in this case, Lillian, the protagonist, is trying to go back to her four year old daughter who she had left for dead after a Russian pogrom in the 1920s)--but the whole middle can feel a little random (anything could happen! anyone could be met!). In this case, Lillian has to get from NYC to Alaska to Siberia without any money (sounds like an episode of the Amazing Race) and naturally she meets lots of characters along the way. But Bloom's short story credentials are useful here because she treats each meeting like an individual story. So the encounters last long enough for the reader to get to know the new characters, to develop concern for them, to allow Lillian to develop a genuine relationship to them and for high stakes action to happen beyond the consistent question of will Lillian stay alive and get to Sophie or not. And Bloom makes the choice to follow, very briefly, each of the characters that Lillian meets all the way through their future. So in a paragraph or two you learn the rest of their lives. This is pretty satisfying and leaves you in the end feeling like she's created a whole world of people--mostly women--who are doing the up-by-the-bootstraps American thing in the 1920s (mostly in the northwest). So the journey is the skeleton, Lillian is the heart, but everything else is the flesh.

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