Amy Bloom

By – February 24, 2012

Bloom’s fifth book explores the jour­ney of a Russ­ian refugee from the pograms of the 1920’s. Lil­lian Leyb finds her­self away from any­thing famil­iar. She is home­less, pen­ni­less, and essen­tial­ly friend­less in the bustling streets of New York City dur­ing the height of the Yid­dish The­ater era. Luck places her in the beds of two pow­er­ful the­ater men, who sup­port her finan­cial­ly, if not emo­tion­al­ly. Slow­ly, Bloom uncov­ers the scars of Lillian’s past life, in a man­ner that both speaks to the ten­der­ness of these wounds and to the bru­tal­i­ty that cre­at­ed them. Bloom’s depic­tion of this impor­tant peri­od in the Jew­ish immi­grant expe­ri­ence is alive with the sights, sounds, smells, and dis­ori­en­ta­tion of New York’s Low­er East Side.

A tip from a some­what ques­tion­able rel­a­tive starts Lil­lian on a jour­ney that takes her away from the com­mon expe­ri­ence of her immi­grant kin. Deter­mined to find her lost daugh­ter, who may still be alive in Siberia, Lil­lian trav­els by train, by foot, by boat, by sheer will, west and north­ward across the Unit­ed States, through the frozen ter­ri­to­ries of Cana­da, and into Alas­ka. Her trek is one of pain and of strength.

Much of the beau­ty in Bloom’s work comes from the char­ac­ter por­tray­als of the peo­ple who keep Lil­lian alive as she trav­els. Just as Lil­lian has been hor­rif­i­cal­ly dam­aged by the events of her life, all those she meets have suf­fered as well. These char­ac­ters emerge from the most diverse cir­cum­stances: a black pros­ti­tute and her broth­er the pimp; a tiny Chi­nese woman in prison for pick pock­et­ing; a kind­ly wid­owed sher­iff; a mur­der­er who has left soci­ety to live alone in a cab­in in the tundra.

In the end, it is love that takes cen­ter stage in Bloom’s dark, painful, and art­ful book. Love nev­er com­plete­ly oblit­er­ates Lillian’s suf­fer­ing, but at times it shad­ows it. It is love that acts as a salve, if not heal­ing scars, at least mak­ing them bear­able. And it is this part of Lillian’s jour­ney that the read­er shares most intimately.

Juli Berwald Ph.D. is a sci­ence writer liv­ing in Austin, Texas and the author of Spine­less: the Sci­ence of Jel­ly­fish and the Art of Grow­ing a Back­bone. Her book on the future of coral will be pub­lished in 2021.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Ran­dom House

1. Dreams are a recur­ring theme in the nov­el. What are Lillian’s dreams, both lit­er­al and metaphor­i­cal? How do these illus­trate or inform the larg­er sub­ject of the Amer­i­can dream?

2. Much of the nov­el cen­ters around self-inven­tion and ‑rein­ven­tion. Can you iden­ti­fy some char­ac­ters who rein­vent them­selves over the course of the nov­el? Which char­ac­ters are suc­cess­ful? Which char­ac­ters are unable to com­plete the process?

3. Accord­ing to folk­tales, when you save the gold­en fish, the tur­baned djinn, the talk­ing cat, he is yours for­ev­er” (p. 43). Which char­ac­ters in the nov­el are saved, in one way or anoth­er? Which char­ac­ters do the saving?

4. Not that she is mine.That I am hers,”Lillian says,describing her love for Sophie (p. 79). In many ways, love is the pri­ma­ry engine of the plot. How does love define, inspire, and com­pel char­ac­ters in the nov­el? What are some of the things char­ac­ters do for love? Do you think that love is por­trayed in the nov­el as a whol­ly pos­i­tive force?

5. Con­trast Yaakov’s sto­ry with Lillian’s. How do they each han­dle the loss of spouse and chil­dren, and how are they changed?

6. Dur­ing Lillian’s jour­ney, there are key points at which she is required to iden­ti­fy her­self as either a native or a for­eign­er, insid­er or out­sider. Can you point out some of these moments? At the end of the nov­el, how com­plete is Lillian’s assimilation?

7. Rela­tion­ships among fam­i­ly mem­bers, par­tic­u­lar­ly par­ents and chil­dren, play an impor­tant role in the nov­el. Com­pare and con­trast the rela­tion­ships between Lil­lian and Sophie, Reuben and Mey­er, Chinky and the Changs. What is dis­tinct about each fam­i­ly? Are there similarities?

8. How are sex­u­al­i­ty and phys­i­cal love por­trayed in the nov­el? Con­sid­er Lillian’s rela­tion­ship with the Bursteins, Chinky’s rela­tion­ship with Mrs. Mor­timer, and Gumdrop’s rela­tion­ship with Snooky Salt, as well as Lillian’s rela­tion­ship with John Bish­op and Chinky’s rela­tion­ship with Cleve­land Munson.

9. What kind of per­son is Lil­lian? What do we learn, through­out the nov­el, about her pas­sions and prej­u­dices? Do you think Lil­lian is right when she says that she is lucky (p. 4)?

10. The metaphors and descrip­tive images in this nov­el are unique. Can you point out a few effec­tive metaphors that helped the nov­el come alive for you as a reader?