"Because she is a little, little girl. Not that she is mine. Because I am hers," Away protagonist Lillian Leyb states fiercely, defending her decision to trek from America to Siberia, where her lost daughter Sophie may be, against all odds, alive and well. It's an unlikely journey for a penniless Russian Jew in 1924, still fresh from Ellis Island after being driven from her home by the pogroms. Thinking that her daughter has been killed, like the rest of the family, Lillian makes a new half-life in the Yiddish theater district as the public mistress of a secretly gay stage star and the private mistress of his theater-owner father. But when a gold-digging cousin shows up on the doorstep of her love-nest, announces that Sophie is alive, and faints dramatically, Lillian feels that she has no choice but to set off on her impossible quest.
For such a slim book, Amy Bloom's fifth novel is an embarrassment of riches. Almost any three chapters could be expanded into an eventful story in its own right: the backstage intrigue of the Goldfadn Theater, the harrowing train trip spent in broom closets and assaulted by porters, the weeks recuperating with a black prostitute in Seattle, the unlikely romance that sputters to life in a remote Yukon cabin. But Bloom never lets readers get comfortable with hope or despair. Just when the present threatens to become a prison of emotion, Bloom rolls into the future, narrating what will become of the characters Lillian leaves behind. Or is she only describing what may become of them? By the time she finally reveals the limits of her narrator's omniscience, she's moved from the mud of the old world to the wilderness of the new, and the story climaxes with a spiral into unanticipated transcendence.
Although the plot and setting sprawl across the continent, Away has a fragile, almost transparent beauty. Bloom paints her characters in watercolors, letting the rawness of their surroundings bleed through their bluster and self-deception. But her memorial to these thrown-together families, these collections of strangers who forge accidental bonds in the cold loneliness of their immigrant journeys, is as solid and awe-inspiring as a marble monument. We are drawn to each other not because we own, but because we are owned—because in a way that no balance sheet can record, we owe, and nothing but our own lives will repay the debt.